Search and Destroy

Grace Livingstone

Britain had more cordial relations with the Argentinian dictatorship of 1976-83 than you might imagine, given Margaret Thatcher’s rhetoric about standing up to the junta during the Falklands War. Both Labour and Conservative governments sold arms to Argentina before 1982. Thatcher even invited the dictatorship’s finance minister José Martínez de Hoz – an Anglophile who favoured tweed jackets and shared her free-market philosophy – to Downing Street in June 1980. ‘I very much enjoyed our meeting,’ she wrote to him afterwards. He was part of a regime responsible for the disappearance of thousands of its citizens; men and women were snatched from the streets by the secret police, taken to secret torture centres and killed, many of them thrown semi-conscious from helicopters into the Atlantic Ocean.

In the Foreign Office papers at the National Archives there are passing references to a visit by the head of the Argentinian navy, Admiral Emilio Massera, to London in 1978. Massera was responsible for a notorious torture centre in Buenos Aires, the Naval Mechanical School. Five thousand people were detained there and subjected to electric shocks, asphyxiation and mutilation before being murdered. Henry Nelson, the chairman of the British electronics company GEC, wrote an angry letter in September 1978 complaining that David Owen, the Labour foreign secretary, had refused to meet Massera. The snub, he said, created a ‘very sour impression’. A telegram from the British chargé d’affaires in Buenos Aires, sent a year later, also remarks that Massera ‘resented’ the minister’s ‘slight’.

The Labour governments of 1974-79 sold arms to Argentina but entertaining a member of the junta was a step too far for Owen. (Massera was ‘a complete shit’, Owen told me in an interview in 2014.) I couldn’t find the Foreign Office papers about Massera’s visit in the files at the National Archive, however. Where were the memos suggesting that Owen should meet the admiral? The visit of any foreign dignitary is usually documented in minute detail, the pros and cons of a meeting with a minister are weighed up, a list of engagements is drafted. Even in the case of an unofficial visit, the visitor’s activities are usually documented. But there are no papers at all concerning Massera from June and July 1978 when he was in London.

I submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Foreign Office. The results were astonishing. More than three hundred folders of Foreign Office papers relating to Britain’s relations with Argentina in the six years before the Falklands war have been shredded. They include a folder entitled ‘Military visits to and from Argentina, 1978’. Folders concerning British and Argentinian military visits for the years 1979, 1980 and 1981, and more than twenty folders relating to British arms sales to Argentina, had also been pulped.

I looked elsewhere for clues about Massera’s visit: according to a two-line parliamentary answer in Hansard the commander of the British navy, Admiral Sir Terence Lewin, attended a reception for Massera at the Argentinian Embassy in London on 3 July 1978. This suggests that the leaders of the Argentinian and British navies met each other four years before the Falklands War – yet all documents relating to this encounter have been destroyed.

Each government department is responsible for selecting which files to preserve and which to destroy. I contacted the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (as it now is) in the hope that someone would talk me through the process. Instead I got a one-line response: ‘The FCDO selects its files for permanent preservation in line with the provisions of the UK Public Records Act 1958.’ According to those provisions, documents of enduring historical value or public interest should be preserved. You’d have thought that papers concerning military relations between Britain and Argentina in the years before they went to war – in a conflict that killed more than nine hundred people and had far-reaching political consequences for both countries – would be of both historical value and public interest.

Shona Lowe, the National Archives’ media manager, was more helpful, but didn’t have answers to all my questions. The destruction of documents is an ‘integral part of information management’, she said. ‘We work closely with departments, providing advice on how they manage the selection and transfer of records.’ Under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 authorities must have ‘a documented process’ for selecting records for preservation or destruction, and the Information Commissioner, an independent watchdog, ‘may, with the consent of any public authority, assess whether that authority is following good practice’. But ultimately, each government department chooses which of its own documents to destroy.

In short, thousands of official papers are destroyed each year and the process is shrouded in secrecy. How much history is erased before it has been written?