ARGENTINE SHIP SUNK OUTSIDE EXCLUSION ZONE, KILLING 323
[ 2 May 1982 ]
At 15.57 on 2 May 1982 a British nuclear powered submarine, HMS Conqueror, torpedoed and sank the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano, killing 323 sailors. The attack was ordered even though the Belgrano was thirty six nautical miles outside Britain’s declared two hundred nautical mile military exclusion zone around the Falkland Islands. The zone itself had been declared in a warning to the Argentine navy that any ships within it might be attacked, even though legally such a unilateral declaration had little or no basis in international law.
Britain’s Sun newspaper celebrated the ship’s sinking with the screamer ‘GOTCHA’, which Private Eye mocked with a spoof competition headlined ‘Kill an Argie and Win A Metro.’ When The Sun‘s editor, Kelvin MacKenzie saw a copy of Private Eye‘s parody pinned to an office wall, he exclaimed excitedly ‘Fucking brilliant ! Why couldn’t we have thought of that, eh ?’ A serviceman on the task force recalled that such headlines ‘often made us feel sick.’2
Amid the fanatical jingoism of Britain’s press, there were a few more sober voices questioning whether the sinking was justifiable. Not only was the General Belgrano, an antiquated battleship dating from 1938, clearly outside Britain’s unilaterally declared ‘exclusion zone’, but it had also been sailing towards the Argentine mainland and away from the British naval task force, dispatched a month earlier to retake the islands. The British strike force was at the moment of sinking, located some three hundred nautical miles to the North East. It is also noteworthy that the sinking took place fourteen hours after the President of Peru, Fernando Belaunde, proposed a detailed plan to resolve the Falkland Islands dispute. The predictable consequence of the attack was that it became politically impossible for the Argentine government to accept any such peace terms, enabling Britain to use full military force to retake the islands.
- Matthew Leggett, ‘The Falklands Conflict: Media Coverage, Propaganda, Jingoism or Journalism ?’ in Carine Berberi and Monia O’Brien Castro, 30 Years After: Issues and Representations of the Falklands War, Routledge, London, 2016 pp. 20-21.
- Roy Greenslade, ‘A New Britain: A New Kind of Newspaper,’ The Guardian, 25 February 2002, accessed online at url https://www.theguardian.com/media/2002/feb/25/pressandpublishing.falklands
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