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BBC cuts to monitoring service will undermine information-gathering for UK defence and security

Defence Committee Press Notice – 20 December 2016

The Defence Committee today warns that the BBC’s plans to cut the funding and staff of BBC Monitoring (BBCM), and to close its dedicated headquarters in Berkshire, will “put at risk the vital future provision of open source information” – sometimes referred to as open source intelligence – which BBCM supplies to Government departments, notably, the Ministry of Defence, Foreign Office and Intelligence Services.

BBCM, which collates, translates and analyses foreign broadcasts and other open source material, including social media, for both Government and commercial customers, is threatened with the loss of almost 100 of its 320 personnel. Most of the job losses will take place in the UK, creating greater dependency on staff based in locations where their ability to function may be subject to pressure and constraint. For this and other reasons, the Committee’s Report is entitled: Open Source Stupidity.

In particular, the BBC plans to break the physical link between BBCM and its US equivalent, Open Source Enterprise (OSE) which is currently in the same building at Caversham Park, near Reading. BBC Monitoring staff are to be moved to Central London, though no dedicated location has yet been identified, and OSE will have to find an entirely separate headquarters, thus weakening the relationship between the two organisations. Currently, they freely share the information they monitor – which works greatly to the UK’s advantage, as the Americans cover 75% of the globe’s foreign media, trading their product for the remaining 25% covered by BBCM.

The BBC wishes to sell Caversham Park and keep the proceeds, even though the estate was purchased with public money supplied on the basis that Caversham would be used for monitoring foreign broadcasts on behalf of Government departments and agencies. The Committee questions whether the BBC is the legal owner of the property, whether it should retain the proceeds even if ownership is proved, and whether the proposed move is in the national interest.

The Report recommends that:

  • The Government should reinstate its previous model of funding BBC Monitoring through a ring–fenced grant–in–aid, rather than allowing the funding to come from the licence fee.
  • At the very least, the Government should pay for the retention of the Video Unit, currently scheduled for closure because almost all its work is carried out for a single customer – the Ministry of Defence.
  • BBC Monitoring should remain co–located with its US counterpart, OSE, at Caversham Park; but, if the property is sold, the money must revert to the Government.
  • If the cuts and relocation do go ahead, and if the Government fails to receive the standard of service required and previously supplied, then the Government should set up a state – owned Open Source Information Agency, thus relieving the BBC of a role with which it appears to be uncomfortable.

Dr Julian Lewis, Defence Committee Chairman, said:

“The Coalition Government was warned, in the strongest possible terms, not to leave the BBC Monitoring service unprotected by ending its ring–fenced annual grant and transferring this minor financial burden to the licence–fee payer. By doing so, it gave the BBC a free hand to inflict successive rounds of cuts, now culminating in the loss of the specialised and dedicated Caversham headquarters.

“The vast increase in open source information in the recent past makes it one of the few tools still left in the Government’s arsenal which can provide almost real time information and analysis on global developments. To allow the BBC to change and shape it in a different direction is in contravention of UK national interest. It is especially bewildering when you consider the annual cost of BBC Monitoring is around £25 million.

“The decision to evict BBC Monitoring’s US counterpart – Open Source Enterprise – from its UK base at Caversham Park and break the physical link between the two is short–sighted. The BBC’s strategy for BBC monitoring will downgrade our contribution to open source intelligence sharing between the UK and the US at a time when European nations must demonstrate to President–elect Trump that we are committed to paying our way in the fields of defence and security. As one of our witnesses said ‘this is the height of folly’.”

[To read the full report, click here.]

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BBC Monitoring is a service which gathers open source information – sometimes referred to as open source intelligence – from foreign media and freely available social media from countries around the world. It was set up during the Second World War to monitor foreign broadcasts. Today, it translates and analyses articles and posts from 150 countries in 100 languages. Its product is used by the BBC to set context for its own news reporting but, much more importantly, it is an indispensable source of information for Government departments and agencies.

The Government uses open source information for indicators and warnings of areas of instability and potential threats to UK security. BBC Monitoring is one of the few open source information – gathering agencies which has a global reach through its partnership with its US counterpart, Open Source Enterprise (OSE). Currently, BBC Monitoring covers 25% of the globe and OSE the remaining 75%. The complementarity of this arrangement for sharing open source information represents a huge return for the United Kingdom on the modest costs of the operation (which are around £25 million per annum). Such global coverage is vital to the understanding not only of Government departments, including the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the Intelligence Services but also NGOs and private organisations. This information is not currently available from any other provider.

For decades, BBC Monitoring was funded by departmental grants and then a ring–fenced sum from its principal client, the Government. However, a 2010 agreement between the Coalition Government and the BBC transferred funding responsibility to the licence–payer. That decision, which took effect in 2013, removed the security and certainty of funding for BBC Monitoring, and – entirely predictably – laid it open to successive cuts as a result of general economies in BBC budgets. In addition to further severe budget cuts, BBC Monitoring is currently facing the loss of its Caversham Park headquarters (formerly owned by the Government) and many of its specialists who have no wish to relocate. The proposed restructuring will result in almost 100 job losses (about 50% of BBC Monitoring staff work overseas) and those who remain will have to take on significantly broader duties. In particular, the specialist Video Unit will be shut down, principally, we were told, because nearly all its work served a single customer – the Ministry of Defence.

Proposals for the relocation of BBC Monitoring will see the remaining staff moved from their current dedicated base near Reading (which also houses the OSE) to a central London BBC location – probably New Broadcasting House. This will loosen and weaken the relationship with OSE and undermine the working conditions and scale of operations of the BBC Monitoring staff. The benefits of such a move remain completely obscure, not least because of the absence of any concrete plan for future dedicated premises and the uncertainty over whether the BBC or the Government would gain financially from any subsequent sale of Caversham Park.

We are convinced and gravely concerned that the proposed changes to BBC Monitoring will lead to a degradation of the service provided – a service which the Government cannot afford to lose. We believe that these changes are unwise as they put at risk the vital future provision of open source information. We have seen strong indications that elements within the hierarchy of the BBC are unhappy with licence–payers’ money being used to fund BBC employees to provide a service to Government departments. We understand this concern and we take the view that such work should be specifically and separately funded by Government in the future, as it always was in the past.

We therefore conclude that the Government must reinstate funding of the service in order to protect its skilled staff and specialist infrastructure. If the BBC is not willing to co–operate, then the Government should recognise the folly of the 2010 decision; take back ownership of Caversham Park; restore the modest central funding required and reconstitute the Monitoring Service as a state–owned Open Source Information Agency, in order to guarantee its future, once and for all.