By Jill Sherman, Media Editor, and Catherine Philp
The Times – 20 December 2016
Plans to sell off the headquarters of BBC Monitoring and cut nearly a third of its staff would put open-source intelligence-gathering at risk and “is the height of folly”, an influential Committee of MPs has warned. BBC Monitoring, based at Caversham Park in Reading, translates and analyses foreign broadcasts and other open-source material including social media, magazines and papers, mainly for the British Government.
However, the corporation plans to save £4 million a year by cutting 100 of its 320 staff in the UK and relocating workers to central London.
In a highly critical report published yesterday, the Defence Select Committee warned that when East-West relations were at a new low it was absurd to dismantle such an important source of intelligence gathering. Julian Lewis, the Committee’s chairman, said the organisation was to open-source intelligence what Bletchley Park was to secret intelligence. It was
“one of the few tools still left in the government’s arsenal which can provide almost real-time information and analysis on global developments”,
The Committee is particularly critical of the proposal to break the physical link between the monitoring unit and Open Source Enterprise, its US equivalent, which is run by the American intelligence services in the same building. Under the present arrangement the Americans gather 75 per cent of the foreign material while the UK covers 25 per cent and they swap the information received.
Mr Lewis believes that the BBC is trying to break up the monitoring service, which costs £25 million a year, because it thinks it should not be providing an intelligence gathering service for the government. The Committee recommends that the Government reinstate the previous model of funding through a ring-fenced grant rather than allowing it to come from the licence fee.
Several military chiefs also expressed their concern in evidence to the Defence Committee. Air Marshal (Rtd) Christopher Nickols, a former Chief of Defence Intelligence, said that BBC Monitoring was absolutely key to providing defence intelligence with indicators and warnings because it covered areas in more detail than other agencies. Often it was the only information available.
The BBC pointed out that the government had already approved its plans to sell Caversham Park but it admitted that it had not finalised where all the staff would be relocated. A spokesman said:
“The media landscape has changed vastly since the creation of BBC Monitoring in the 1930s, and we believe our planned restructure is vital to equip us for a world in which digital skills are far more important than physical location.”
The spokesman said it would honour the 2010 agreement, when the cost of the service was handed to the licence-fee payer, but that it would offer additional services if the Government agreed to fund them directly.
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'LISTENING TO THE WORLD'
The BBC needs to prune its hefty management rather than axe overseas monitors
The Times – 20 December 2016
Not since the Cold War has it been so vital for Britain to formulate a strong response to the fake news blaring from hostile powers and their disruptive fellow travellers. Cutting 100 jobs from the BBC Monitoring service, one of the corporation’s most quietly cost-effective wings, may seem like an act of sensible housekeeping but it will handicap the Government in the global information war. Russia, in particular, has been attempting to muddy the waters, interfering in election campaigns and trying to sow mistrust about mainstream western media. The BBC and the Government should think again about the nation’s strategic priorities.
The monitoring station was set up in Caversham Park on the outskirts of Reading in 1943 to listen to and summarise news coming out of Nazi-occupied Germany. After the war it focused on transmissions from the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. It became the first to report to the Government on the fast-moving events in the Cuban missile crisis and the death of Stalin. Since then it has grown into a global enterprise, following the news in 100 languages. The information, drawn from radio, television and social media, is compiled and sent to government departments — an authentic and unfiltered voice that has aided decision-making at times of heightened tension such as during the 2011 overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. There is nothing clandestine about this service; it mops up open-source material and allows government to know what is being said about Britain’s place in the world. The reports are nonetheless a useful aid to both the US and the British intelligence agencies.
The elimination of the jobs is supposed to contribute to a £4 million cut in funding. Yet some of the savings will be eroded by the need to finance travel or subsidise the shift of the remaining staff to London. The assumption is that the true prize would be the sale of the sprawling Caversham estate. The Victorian manor house was given to the BBC by the government but it appears that the corporation is hoping to profit from its sale. It was decided in 2010 that Caversham would be funded by licence fee-payers and the BBC will no doubt say that the disposal of the property is justifiable.
The BBC certainly needs to save money but not by disposing of property and expertise that is at the heart of a proven and relatively low-cost service. There is still plenty of fat to be cut from the senior and middle management echelons, some of whom earn double the income of the Prime Minister. It is a swollen bureaucracy that seems unable to find a niche for a team of people whose talent is in keeping the nation’s decision-makers better informed rather than would-be celebrity politicians on the dance floor.
The corporation is capable of combining its commitments to viewers with the national interest. The last Strategic Defence Review acknowledged the importance of soft power for British foreign and defence policy and drew attention to the role of the BBC World Service. The Government has given the World Service extra funding to transmit, for example, into North Korea and other countries denied alternative views. That kind of flexibility and imagination is required now in dealing with the men and women who sift through the noise and provide government with a window on the world.