Open Source Stupidity: The Threat to the BBC Monitoring Service

Media Network, the weekly communications magazine formerly on Radio Netherlands, is set to return as an independent podcast in 2017, resuming its analysis of international broadcasting.

The first time we visited BBC Monitoring was in August 1989. That broadcast is sitting in the Media Network Vintage Vault. During the previous lifetime of the programme (1980–2000), we worked closely with colleagues from World Broadcasting Information at BBC Monitoring. Search for contributions from Richard Measham and Chris Greenway in the vintage vault of around 450 half-hour programmes.

BBC Monitoring Service currently located in Caversham Park

By way of a prequel to the new series, we asked John Fertaud, who has worked at BBC Monitoring in the past, to analyse and comment on a new UK government report about the future of the service. Here is his analysis.

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Open Source Stupidity… rarely, if ever, has a UK House of Commons Committee been so blunt in naming a report addressing Government policies. But this is the case on Tuesday December 12th 2016, as the HoC Defence Committee publishes its conclusions on “The Threat to the BBC Monitoring Service”. This report comes in the wake of a HoC Foreign Affairs Committee report highlighting similar concerns at the threats facing the service.

Open-source information gathering

BBC Monitoring (BBCM), a little-known division of the BBC, located in a historic mansion in Caversham Park, near Reading, Berkshire, is an open source information-gathering service created on the onset of World War II to listen to foreign broadcast and propaganda. It supplies context to BBC news items and supplies translations and analyses of foreign news sources (radio and TV broadcasts, print and online media, news agencies, etc.) and social media to a number of UK Government and US departments and to private customers on a commercial basis.

A remarkable record

The Defence Committee report highlights some of BBCM’s significant contributions to alerting to significant events and to flagging information key to the UK’s security situation, and to that of its allies. Some of the examples given were:

  • “The critical role of communication between Presidents Khrushchev and Kennedy (…) helping avert the immediate danger of thermo-nuclear war” in the final week of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis
  • Initial reports from various Soviet republics and Poland pointing to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the USSR
  • Assessing local and regional situations where the UK plans to intervene at political or even military levels

BBCM provided real-time and unparalleled coverage for other important events, not mentioned in the report, such as:

  • the introduction of martial law in Poland in December 1981 (at the time BBCM had a listening station in Berlin)
  • the August 1991 coup attempt in the USSR

A written submission to the Committee by Dr Jonathan Eyal, Associate Director of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies think tank (RUSI), points to some very important aspects of BBCM work:

  • unrivalled ability to connect otherwise seemingly irrelevant information, and connecting various disciplines of security analysts
  • being first provider of alerts about conspiracy theories, “which are not matters of wry amusement” but “can actually kill”
  • providing context thus offering “a critical clue as to how to evaluate international developments”
  • being one of the few global outlets to combine printed and electronic media information with social website interactions.

Funding arrangements

As part of the 2010 BBC licence fee agreement, funding of the BBC World Service (WS), from a grant-in-aid from the Foreign Office (FCO), and of BBC Monitoring, from mainly government sources (FCO, Ministry of Defence, Cabinet Office) and the WS, was transferred to the BBC which had to start funding these from the licence fee (frozen at its 2010 level) as of 2013.

Addressing the funding issue facing Monitoring Lord Campbell told the Committee that he admitted the BBC “was given a very hard deal in 2010, with the licence fee settlement (…) [and] under pressure to reduce costs but (…) we are not talking about the quality of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ here; we are talking about the provision of information that, properly obtained and properly used, has an essential part to play in the security of the United Kingdom at a time when everyone accepts that the threat has changed but may be just as severe.”

Monitoring’s current total budget is around £20m-£25m, with an operating budget of some £13.2m, which it proposes to cut to £9.45m

“Inappropriate for the BBC”

The BBC under funding pressure is seeking ways to cut paying for certain services, and it is fair to say that many at BBC management level don’t appreciate the value of Monitoring, which contributes significantly to the uniqueness of the BBC’s international news coverage.

A convenient way to press the case for cutting funding for BBCM (and eventually bringing about its demise) was to equate its activities with those of a branch of the UK’s intelligence community, which would, however, be funded by the licence fee.

This was highlighted in a late June 2014 report on BBC Newsnight programme, which could arguably be seen as a hatchet job carried out by the BBC on one of its own services, and which the Defence Committee “considers to be as deeply hostile” and giving “substance to our suspicion that there is a culture of hostility within parts of the BBC to its involvement in open-source monitoring work to assist the government.”

Introducing the report, Newsnight presenter Laura Kuenssberg inferred that the licence fee was used to fund a service “that does work for the government’s intelligence services, including providing information that most BBC journalists cannot see. Last year the government stopped paying for it, leaving you [i.e. the licence fee payer] to pick up the bill.”

To underline the “shadowy” side of the service’s activities the Newsnight video report mentioned extensively close links between BBCM and its partner since 1946, the US government-funded Open Source Enterprise, which has staff and office space in Caversham. Video showed satellite dishes (necessary to receive TV and radio broadcasts, news feeds everywhere), CCTV cameras, found in streets and shopping centres, blacked-out emails, etc. were used to focus on always [un]popular “spook” activities, wrongly attributed to BBCM.

Kuenssberg’s assertion that “most BBC journalists cannot see” BBCM material was dismissed in the Newsnight report by BBC journalist Owen Bennett-Jones who said that “the vast majority of all this material is available to all BBC journalists. I used it myself for many years.”

However, what was revealing about the BBC’s intentions regarding BBCM was the following information given by Bennett-Jones in his report:

“Now, Newsnight has learned that at the highest levels of the BBC there is concern about whether some of the work being done at Caversham is unsuitable for a public broadcaster. I understand that as part of the [BBC] Charter renewal process the Corporation is seeking to hand over responsibility for the parts of Monitoring that are what one source describes as ‘inappropriate’ for the BBC.”

In view of scandals that have tainted the BBC’s reputation in recent years, one could reasonably ask whether BBC management’s and BBC News’ “pathetic failure” (in the words of BBC Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman) to pursue their internal investigation into widely known cases of sexual abuse on the part of some most prominent BBC staff could not also be described as “inappropriate for the BBC…”

The US connection

One of the arguments used by the BBC to justify cuts at BBCM is its links with US open-source intelligence (OSINT) gathering operations that date back to WWII.

The partnership was made official in an agreement signed shortly after WWII between the BBC and what was then the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), which later became part of the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology.

The agreement provided for a cooperative media coverage and sharing arrangement between the two organisations.

Following successive cuts at BBCM relationship, OSE now provides some 75% of the content and BBCM the rest. The respective shares were much more balanced before, but OSE had to take the slack in covering many regions / outlets after BBCM cut off many parts of its services. It is arguable whether the US defence community might be willing to share its output in the future with a partner that risks becoming irrelevant. As Committee Chair Dr Julian Lewis stressed, the relationship between Monitoring and OSE “is parallel to the relationship we have with them [US partners] in the exchange of secret intelligence.” This point was also addressed by witnesses giving evidence to the Committee, in particular by former Chiefs of Defence Intelligence (CDIs).

Strong support for continuing BBC Monitoring’s activities

The Committee received written and oral evidence from security and intelligence experts that highlighted the importance attached to Monitoring’s activities by the intelligence community and the risks posed by further cuts.

In his intervention Keir Giles, an associate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia programme at the RIIA (Chatham House) think tank, who worked for BBCM from 1992 to 2006, drew attention to the past experience of suppressing services: “Caversham has an unfortunate track record of deleting coverage of specific regions at exactly the wrong time: the coverage of Afghanistan was deleted in 2000 and the coverage of Georgia was deleted in 2007, right before what was happening in those countries suddenly became very interesting. At that time, it was possible to reconstitute rapidly, because the individuals concerned had not actually left the building, but that is no longer to be the case under the current plans,” Giles said.

Lord West, a former Director of Naval Intelligence and later CDI said that BBCM “had a pool of real expertise and were able to pluck real gems out of the ether — literally out of the ether — which they could put together and, in a sense, start the analysis off.”

Another former DCI, Air Marshal Nickols, added that “BBC Monitoring was absolutely key to indicators and warnings, as we would call it in intelligence terms, because by its very nature it is probably covering areas that you don’t really have many analysts looking at in any detail.”

Experts and Committee members expressed concern at the mooted closure of the specialist Video Unit, which primarily serves the MoD (which it provides with videos of hostilities, weapons, military and strategic infrastructure).

Further cuts and reliance on overseas units could adversely impact coverage

BBC Monitoring management looks at another round of cuts that would very seriously damage its capabilities. As Lord West told the Committee “it is death by a thousand cuts”. UK teams to be disbanded would include the Video Unit; the Monitoring Research Unit, (which collates information for country and individual profiles); the Source Management Team (which identifies media sources and their affiliations);

To cut costs, Monitoring envisages also to increase the size of its overseas units and cut staffing in Caversham. It proposes, for instance, to reduce the size of its Caversham-based Russian speakers to just 9 down from 15, which is already totally inadequate.

BBCM maintains a unit in Moscow, which will not suffer job losses, but as Giles noted, “they of course operate with the indulgence of the Russian state authorities, which can be withdrawn at any time. That leaves coverage of Russia hostage to good relations with Russia, which are not looking promising at the moment.”

This assumption was supported by the Committee chair, who remarked that “the recent withdrawal of [RBS] banking support from Russia Today — Russia’s propaganda-oriented channel — presumably means that there is always the prospect of retaliation against any BBC employees based in Russia.”

Relying more on Monitoring overseas offices that “tend to be in countries that are not necessarily friendly to the UK or, indeed, to journalism, whether that is open source collection or the apparently innocent operations of the BBC (…) is inviting risk,” said Giles.

The report stresses that the BBC has made its Monitoring service vulnerable by over-relying on its overseas staff, leading to hyper-sensitivity by its management to public reference to its work.

In the late 1990s an attempt by BBC Monitoring management to disband its Caversham-based Arabic team and relocate its Arabic-language monitoring operations to a Maghreb country, against strong opposition from BBCM staff at the time, floundered at a cost to the UK tax payer of over £200,000.

Debunking BBC managers’ arguments

It must be said both oral submissions as well as evidence provided to the Committee by BBC WS Director Fran Unsworth and BBCM Director Sara Beck were at best unconvincing. Neither could confirm who owned Caversham Park, and the well-worn argument that Monitoring “would be more efficient and do more with less”, was given short shrift.

The Committee report said that it was “particularly unimpressed by the inability of the BBC to give any detail on its proposals to house BBC Monitoring in New Broadcasting House, which suggests that the planned changes are ill thought-through and designed in accordance with a predetermined agenda.”

Asked by the Committee chair what he thought of the BBC’s argument for making these changes was that “in part they want to monitor more with a smaller budget and fewer people,” Lord West dismissed the argument outright.

“They are not actually monitoring more, are they?” he said, “When you look at what they are proposing, it is not going to end up with more monitoring. Indeed, they are cutting bits out. I just find it inconceivable that a 30% cut can make the organisation do more. It means that it must have been pretty bloody incompetent before, mustn’t it?”

Possible solutions in sight?

Both the HoC Defence and Foreign Affairs Committees agree on the fact that ending Government funding for the Monitoring Service was a mistake, and stress the importance of the service for the country’s security and foreign policies.

The Defence Committee states unequivocally that “If the recommendations contained in this Report are disregarded by the Government and the BBC, we shall not hesitate to call back Ministers and senior officials of the BBC, at regular intervals, and hold them directly to account.”

The Foreign Affairs Committee says that “the Government should reverse the changes made in 2013 and should restore Government funding for open source monitoring of media sources overseas.” It leaves open the option of setting up a government agency to do this. However, it must be said that the costs involved would much likely be higher, a great deal of expertise would be lost, there would be disruption before the new service starts operating effectively and issues such as the vetting of staff would need addressing.

BBC is above criticism, as usual

As usual when confronted with an unfavourable evaluation of its activities the BBC rejects any criticism, as it does in its response to the HoC Foreign Affairs Committee Report, in which it states: “it [the BBC] believes that the plans, designed to respond to technological change and transform the way Monitoring works, will improve the service for Government and other customers. There will be a focus on quality and digital working which will increase the volume of video and multi-media content — this will be of particular benefit to Government users.”

However, this claim of giving assurances that cuts will result in better services is contradicted with the assessment made by BBCM staff when they discuss in private the current situation at the service after recent rounds of cuts.

It is not shared either by BBCM customers, as Keir Giles made clear to the HoC Defence Committee: “my colleagues in Chatham House and, I hear, in Government Departments as well, are feeling the deterioration in the service as a result” [of the shift in coverage priorities].

Giles later added the following details: “Some of the most important sources on Russian defence and security topics — such as the main news agency, which covers it, and the Ministry of Defence television station and so on — are no longer being watched. Instead of having the general brief of keeping an eye out for this kind of thing, staff at Caversham are, for example, tasked to report globally on reactions to Bob Dylan being awarded the Nobel Prize.”

It is surprising also to see that future funding of the BBC Monitoring service was not provided for in the Government’s November 2015 announcement of £289m in extra financial support for the expansion of the BBC World Service (of which BBC Monitoring is a part). This extra funding was earmarked as part of the Government’s National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review.

John comments:

Car-licking moose and flying squirrels may point to the future

From personal experience, up to the mid 1990s past BBC Monitoring Directors had a very comprehensive and sound experience of news and its connection with open-source information (or intelligence, as it is often described these days). As a writer once said: “Intelligence Needs the Media, the Media Needs Intelligence”.

This close connection was gradually lost with appointments of BBC executives seeking a stepping stone to more senior BBC positions, of external executives without a clue about news, or others who left after a few months to take other positions at the BBC or elsewhere.

Recent news items posted on Monitoring’s BBCM News From Elsewhere blog may point to a different future for the 76-year-old service.

They include (October-December 2016) priceless gems, such as: “Denmark develops ‘super grass’ to cut cow burp emissions; social network for Russian pets; Flying squirrel numbers soar in Helsinki; Kyrgyz concerns about donkey exports to China; Canadians warned about car-licking moose; Giant lobster bought by Canadian vegan is set free; or Japan’s elderly drivers swap licences for noodle discount.”

Let’s hope that these do not point to the future news priorities set out by BBC Monitoring management.

John Fertaud worked over 10 years as language monitor, news editor in BBCM regional news desks, as well as an editor in the BBCM’s Video Unit and a media analyst in its Foreign Media Unit.