New Forest East




The Media Show, BBC Radio 4 – 21 December 2016


Andrea Catherwood: … Is it crackers for the BBC to slash its Monitoring Service? MPs say it is an act of stupidity that will damage a service vital to British spies and diplomats. We’ll look at what that means.


Andrea Catherwood: At the sprawling stately home on the outskirts of Reading, BBC staff have been listening in to some of the world’s most seismic events for nearly seventy five years. Caversham Park is home to BBC Monitoring, where 320 workers still translate and analyse foreign broadcasts, news and magazine articles from a hundred and fifty countries in a hundred languages.

They operate alongside their US equivalent, which is run by the American intelligence services from the same building in Berkshire, and they share the information that they glean, thus allowing not just the BBC, but the Government to follow breaking news in far-flung corners of the globe. There they’ve listened in to reporting on the death of Stalin, the building of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis. In recent weeks they’ve heard from Aleppo, Moscow and Ankara.

Well, recent plans by the BBC to save £4m by cutting one hundred staff, relocating the remainder to central London and removing the Americans, and selling Caversham Park, sparked outrage. Parliament’s Defence Select Committee warned that, with East-West relations at the new low, it was absurd to dismantle such an important source of intelligence gathering.

Well, Keir Giles is currently an Associate Fellow at Chatham House and he worked at BBC Monitoring for 15 years, until 2006, and Stuart Seaman is outgoing Father of the Chapel of the National Union of Journalists at BBC Monitoring Service and he joins us now from Caversham Park.

If I can begin, Keir Giles, by asking you – it sounds like it’s been extremely interesting, how valuable though is the kind of information that BBC Monitoring provides?

Keir Giles: It is as valuable now as it always has been. In fact, in some respects it’s getting more so. There is no shortage of regimes around the world that are inclined to be hostile towards this country, and which do not allow easy access to their media, and BBC Monitoring plays a vital role there. So if you take the example of Russia, we are not in a new Cold War, but there are elements of what Russia is doing at the moment that are similar.

We need to have the insight into what foreign countries say they are doing and say to their own citizens what is happening in the outside world. You mentioned the breaking news in your introduction, but there is also the painstaking building up of information about exactly how the country operates and what its plans for the future are. They are extremely valuable to our security and intelligence services and to government as a whole.

Andrea Catherwood: Stuart, would you agree that the kind of information that you are getting, is information that wouldn’t be available elsewhere, if it wasn’t for BBC Monitoring?

Stuart Seaman: Yes, I’m not aware of any other agency in the world that does the job that we do.

Andrea Catherwood: Keir, it is called BBC Monitoring. In fact, however, much of the information it’s produced goes to the Government, is that correct?

Keir Giles: Certainly, it has been historically. It was set up for the Government, effectively it came under the BBC organisationally; it was really a quirk and a peculiarly British solution to the situation that pertained in 1939, when it was first established. You mentioned already that the US equivalent – US partner in global coverage – is part of the US National Security authorities. There was never any thought there of making it part of a public service broadcaster.

Now, that arrangement worked for many years, until recently both the Government and the BBC have decided that they’ve had enough of funding the organisation. The Government because it wished to cut that because there was no one single customer in charge of paying for it, and the BBC more recently because it has been asked to pay for the service of which it is not the main customer, which is a strange situation in the first place.

Andrea Catherwood: And yet, Julian Lewis, who is Chair of the Parliamentary Defence Committee, said this week that the organisation was to open source intelligence, what Bletchley Park was to secret intelligence. He called it one of the few tools still left in the Government’s arsenal which can provide almost real time information and analysis on global development. He is putting it very squarely in the Government’s arsenal, shouldn’t the Government therefore fund it directly, Keir?

Keir Giles: There is a very strong argument for that and, in fact, that was the case up until 2013; it was funded one way or another through the central Government. But in 2013, the BBC was asked to pay for the service, of which it really wasn’t the main customer. Now, you mentioned Julian Lewis, Chair of the Defence Select Committee of Parliament. Unusually, there are two separate Parliamentary Committees that have published reports saying that what the BBC is planning to do is an exceptionally bad idea.

Andrea Catherwood: Stuart, is most of the work commissioned for the Government or for the BBC? And indeed, how is BBC Monitoring directed as to where to look, and who by?

Stuart Seaman: Well, in the past, as Keir says, the Government was the main customer, the main consumer of our material. We would monitor the media with an eye mostly to Government requirements, but with an eye also to the BBC’s agenda, which is different. The Government is more into information; the BBC is more into news gathering. Since the funding regime changed, the BBC took over sole responsibility for funding Monitoring, the agenda here has shifted. We are now being directed towards the BBC’s news agenda, and that is now our first priority. Whether or not we will be able to continue to provide information for the Government, when we’ve lost 40 per cent of our staff at Caversham and 20 per cent abroad, is – well, I think we can guess.

Andrea Catherwood: The Select Committee was also very highly critical of breaking this physical link between the Monitoring Unit and its US equivalent. Do they really need to be in the same place?

Stuart Seaman: Well, it certainly helps. If we are in the same building, you’ve got the personal relationships. I mean, we can communicate with them by e-mail and by phone, but it’s not the same. We are, as the MPs themselves said, two organisations joined at the hip. If you break that connection, there is going to be a dilution of the relationship. It is inevitable.

Keir Giles: I wonder if I can just chip in there. One of the main objections to evicting the Americans from their base in London was not so much the effect that there won’t be this co-location, but also why offend a vital partner in this information-sharing agreement, from which this country derives great benefit, particularly at the time when the incoming US Administration is looking to assess the commitment of its allies to arrangements like that? It is particularly bad timing to offend one of our most important partners, and it should not be the BBC that is the arbiter of how this country’s national security alliances work.

Andrea Catherwood: Can I ask you finally, Stuart, if this does go through, what do you think the effect is going to be on the end product, and indeed the soft power that you are able to exert?

Stuart Seaman: The end result is going to be less understanding of what other countries are doing and thinking, and how they perceive themselves and the world, which can be radically different from the way that we perceive such things. It is going to mean that Monitoring is more focused on the news-gathering agenda, which is fine – we are funded by the licence fee, so we should serve that.

Andrea Catherwood: OK. Keir Giles and Stuart Seaman, thank you both very much indeed.

We did ask the Foreign Office for their reaction to the recent Select Committee reports and they said that BBC Monitoring provides a valuable service.

We asked the BBC to appear, nobody was available, but they did say that the media landscape has changed vastly since the creation of BBC Monitoring in the 1930s, and that they believe that the planned restructure is vital to equip them for the world in which digital skills are far more important than physical location. That’s all we’ve got time for now. Thank you very much for listening.