This but improved
History comes up in the strangest places. Drifting through an episode of Bullseye on Challenge (there was a guy wearing a style of cardigan that must have been briefly in fashion at the time, thoroughly discredited through the 90s, 00s, and now purchasable from any high street shop of your choice), and Jim Bowen asked a contestant "What important event had caused a big political stir in 1987?" Turns out it was something called the Zircon satellite affair.
"An extremely delicate moment"
The war over possession of the Falkland Islands was a blow for British politicians who believed in the 'special relationship', the political bond shared between America and Britain born of their co-dependence during the Second World War, and subsequently the Cold War. America declined to intervene militarily against the Argentinians, although in private they supported Britain with intelligence, and publicly supplied the sidewinder missiles for Britain's harriers that allowed Britain's air force to massively outperform their Argentine counterparts.
The American's position was however much more ambivalent. The release of secret documents has shown that Alexander Haig, the American Secretary of State, discussed with British Ambassador Sir Nicholas Henderson the possibility of giving early warning to the General Galtieri about the impending invasion of South Georgia, which could have done immense harm to the British invasion force. A request for the use of NSA spy satellites was also turned down as at the time because they were tasked with monitoring El Salvador. The British resolved that, rather than rely on the Americans who were increasingly untrustworthy, they would design a range of satellites of their own: the project was named Zircon.
Building a new range of satellites seemed to call back to an earlier age of British aerospace innovation, when Britain had produced Ariels (launched with the aid of the Americans), or Prosperos (launched by Britain itself from Woomera, Australia). The Zircon was to be built in Portsmouth and shipped to America to be launched into space via NASA's space shuttle programme; the project cost £500 million however, and for this reason was scrapped by the Chancellor Nigel Lawson in 1987. For the government however, there was another problem brewing, in BBC Scotland.
"The Secret Society"
Duncan Campbell was an investigate reporter working for the BBC, hated by some in the government and intelligence community because he had exposed their secrets. Campbell was making a series for BBC Scotland called "The Secret Society", a series examining the channels of power that run beneath Britian's parliamentary democracy that looked at secret cabinet committees, emergency powers, dodgy radar defence, the Data Protection Act, ACPO, and the Zircon programme. The series was already contentious with BBC and government staff expressing their doubts that the series should be broadcast: eventually the series was cut to five episodes and the Zircon episode dropped. The story however, that the Zircon project may have breached a requirement that costly defense projects should be placed before the Public Accounts Committee, and that £500 million of tax payer's money had been wasted, was already out. Campbell wrote an article about the Zircon project in a column in the New Statesmen, causing the Special Branch to launch a raid against Campbell and the New Statesmen. In retaliation, Campbell began making plans to show the Zircon film in parliament.
Shortly after the raid Alisdair Milne, the BBC Director General of the time, who had produced programmes impartial or critical of the Tory government, stepped down on the orders of the Board of Governors. David Wilby, the BBC's parliamentary correspondent, describes the series of events in this article, and highlights the links between the intelligence community and BBC executives.
The programme was eventually in 1988, and the storm passed, but interestingly the programme focusing on secret select committees was never seen. Alastair Darling alleged in 1989 that the Zircon affair was really aimed at putting down the secret committee report, which would have focused on the 1983 election campaign.
The motivations for the government in the Zircon affair are obscure, but it seems sensible to conclude that defense and intelligence elements, as well as BBC staff with links to these, were pushing for the series to be shelved, not for the reasons necessarily that they were trying to lock down secrecy but to avoid embarrassment Britain had tried to grasp some of the post-WW2 power that it had briefly enjoyed in aerospace, and was trying to carry on the possible resurgence of imperial fervor sustained by the Falklands. Campbell's documentary was an attack on not only their secrecy, but a long term vision of a resurgence of Britain's techno-imperial leverage with regional powers like Argentina. Being snubbed by the Americans and then barely scraping by in the Falklands must have been very unsettling for the British military, leading to a failed attempt to edge back into space-technology that ended up resembling the debacle of the Skybolt system.
Along similar lines to this post, check out Phil Knight on the Royal Navy and the shadow Empire.