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Corporation set to reduce service that analyses broadcasts from around the world

By Larisa Brown, Defence Correspondent

Mail Online – 20 December 2016

BBC plans to slash a 'vital' global monitoring service that analyses intelligence are a threat to national security, MPs claim today. Proposals to cut a large part of BBC Monitoring are the 'height of folly' and there could be 'serious consequences' for Britain's defence and security if they go ahead, a highly critical report warns.

The BBC Monitoring service was originally established in the Second World War to monitor foreign broadcasts. Equipped with two large 'listening rooms', it famously listened in to Nazi radio broadcasts. After 9/11 it started gathering intelligence on Taliban communications.

Using highly trained intelligence experts, the service now translates and analyses news and information from around the world. The information is then passed on to the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office and Britain's intelligence services such as MI6.

The report by the Defence Select Committee said it was a 'vital tool' in UK policy-making but it was in 'grave danger' of 'becoming a hollow shell of its former existence'. BBC Monitoring was directly funded by the Government until 2013. Responsibility for it then passed to the BBC under the terms of an agreement announced by then-Chancellor George Osborne.

Funding and governance for the service has been 'woefully short-sighted' and 'catastrophically ill thought-out', the new report says. The Committee said the move had 'entirely predictably' exposed the service to cuts, with around 100 jobs set to go under a BBC re-structuring programme. It is urging the Government to take back responsibility for funding BBC Monitoring to avert damaging cutbacks.

MPs are 'deeply concerned' that the proposed changes will have a 'deleterious impact' on the provision of information to the Government, in particular the MoD.  It said:

'We shall need to test whether the changes proposed are undermining our open source information-gathering, with serious consequences for our defence and security. Regretfully, we predict that that is exactly what will happen.'

In the current climate of world instability, MPs said the impact of the proposed changes should be of 'great concern' to ministers.

The report expressed particular concern at plans to move BBC Monitoring out of its current headquarters in Caversham Park, Berkshire. At the site, UK officers operate alongside their US counterpart, Open Source Enterprise (OSE), meaning a move could potentially disrupt information-sharing with the Americans. Currently, BBC Monitoring covers 25 per cent of the globe, while OSE covers the remaining 75 per cent.

Defence Select Committee chairman Dr Julian Lewis said:

'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".'

Dr Lewis said to allow the BBC to change its direction was in 'contravention of the national interest'.

'The Government uses open-source information for indicators and warnings of areas of instability and potential threats to UK security,'

the report added.

'The decisions made concerning the funding and governance of BBC Monitoring over the past decade or so have been woefully short-sighted and catastrophically ill-thought-out. A service that has the potential to be a vital tool in opening the world to UK diplomacy and business is in grave danger of becoming a hollow shell of its former existence.'

Lord Campbell of Pittenweem told the Committee:

'It seems to me that the security and continuity that BBC Monitoring has been able to produce over the years is absolutely fundamental to the security of the United Kingdom.'

Lord West, former head of the Royal Navy, said the combination of funding cuts, restructuring and relocation represented 'death by a thousand cuts'. The Committee's findings echo a similar warning earlier this year by the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.