It was my first foreign assignment. I landed in Buenos Aires in April 1982 with what knowledge of Argentine history and politics I could glean from books on the long flight from Madrid and pidgin Spanish picked up on holidays in Spain. How was I to establish the contacts on which all journalists rely?
A few days after my arrival, I saw a newspaper advertisement for a meeting of the Argentine Irish community at the Church of the Holy Cross. I knew there were Argentinians of Irish descent. Che Guevara’s patronymic name was Lynch. The Irish community would be my way in.
A thirty minute bus ride from the Sheraton Hotel, our base in BA, took me to the Church, where I had one of the most memorable encounters of my reporting career. – Father Frederico Richards. He edited the English language weekly newspaper for the Irish in Argentina – the ‘Southern Cross’, still in print and online today, in both English and Spanish.
He was a fearless opponent of the Junta. Some 30,000, mostly left-wing students, academics, trade-unionists, journalists were snatched off the streets, and ‘disappeared’ under the military dictatorship. Frederico published weekly accounts of them.
He had witnessed the kidnapping by the military of twelve mothers of the ‘disappeared’ and a nun who was helping them. His niece, Gloria Keogh, had been kidnapped from her apartment and ‘disappeared’. She was never found.
On that April afternoon, forty years ago, he told me about unconfirmed reports that some of the ‘disappeared’ had been drugged and thrown out of planes into the Atlantic. These death-flights were finally admitted in court, years later.
He was also fearless in condemning his own bishops for their silence about the disappeared, and the Spanish language newspapers who failed to report the murders and disappearances of, mostly left-wing, critics of the Junta.
He was an invaluable contact. Through him, I met other members of the Richards family – nearly all of them lawyers – and through them, I met politicians, factory owners, business people who in turn knew members of the armed forces and the administration. These were my ears to the ground throughout my stay.
Although we suspected our hotel rooms were searched from time to time, probably by the agents who cruised around the city in dark green Ford Falcons, I never felt unsafe, unless from the buses which careered at high speeds through the city streets. The locals called them collectivos assassinos – killer buses.
One of the press pack – the Sheraton in BA was like the Europa in Belfast, full of journalists – got some T shirts printed with the slogan ‘I covered the Falklands War – in big print, and in tiny print – ‘from Argentina’ – a thousand miles away.
The biggest problem was sending our daily reports back to BBC2’s ‘Newsnight’. We worked with camera crews and editors from Ted Turner’s American TV company that later became CNN. We were helped by the four-hour time difference between Argentina and the UK.
We operated out of bedrooms in the Sheraton hotel. The editor cut the tape we had shot during the day. An air steward, moonlighting from his job with Aerolineas Argentinas, took the cassette, went down in the lift, got into a taxi, went to the airport, hopped on a plane to Uruguay, took a taxi to the national broadcasting service where the US 525 tape was modified to the UK 625 system and then bounced by a satellite to the studio in London.
For interviews with Peter Snow in the London studio, we mocked up a studio in the hotel room. I sat on chair on top of a couple of low tables, covered by a bedspread. Peter would ask me questions on the telephone, I would put down the phone and answer directly to camera. These answers would then be sent on tape to London in the way I’ve described and replayed on transmission in answer to the same questions from Peter Snow.
The immediacy of present-day reporting from the terrible war in Ukraine never ceases to amaze me. I stayed in Argentina to report the aftermath of the war, the fall of the Junta, the call for elections.
It is the only war I know that had two winners. The UK won the war. Argentina won a democracy.
Former press, radio and TV reporter, and reporter/producer current affairs TV for BBC, ITV , Ch. 4. Ex-presenter ‘Sunday Sequence’ BBC Radio Ulster. Currently writing 6th novel, and a stage play.