Open Source Stupidity: The Threat to the BBC Monitoring Service Contents

2BBC Monitoring


11.BBC Monitoring was established at the start of the Second World War, to provide briefings and analysis on propaganda and other broadcasts coming out of Europe. Its staff produced daily briefings for the War Cabinet on developments both in Europe and across the world. In the 1940s, BBC Monitoring was relocated from its original home at Wood Norton, near Evesham, to Caversham Park.11 Its US counterpart, Open Source Enterprise, joined BBC Monitoring at Caversham and have since been co-located there for many years.12

The work of BBC Monitoring

12.BBC Monitoring translates and analyses news and information from media sources including TV and radio broadcasts, the press and social media, across 100 different languages and 150 countries around the world. Not only does it produce verbatim transcripts, it also generates analysis of news items, using a range of media sources reporting on the same topic. It also produces assessments of the reach and influence of different types of media in areas across the world.

13.The arrangement and co-location with Open Source Enterprise is part of a burden-sharing arrangement. The two organisations focus on different areas of the world and then share their work. Open Source Enterprise, the larger of the two organisations, is responsible for monitoring 75% of the world, with BBC Monitoring taking the lead on the remaining 25%.13 Through its relationship with the OSE, BBC Monitoring also has access to information produced by the equivalent Australian service.14

14.BBC Monitoring has 320 staff, roughly half of whom are based at Caversham Park. The remaining staff are based in offices in a wide range of countries including the United States, Ukraine, Georgia, Russia, Uzbekistan, Egypt, Kenya, Afghanistan and India. BBC Monitoring staff work in shifts providing coverage of the world’s media between 8am and 11pm. In addition to the regional desks at Caversham Park there are a number of specialised teams including the Jihadist Media Team (which monitors extremist media across platforms); the Monitoring Research Unit (which collates information for country and individual profiles); the Source Management Team (which identifies media sources and their affiliations); and the Video Unit (which provides the Ministry of Defence with videos of hostilities, weapons, military and strategic infrastructure).15 These teams are overseen by two ‘operational hubs’.16

Who uses open source information?

15.The information produced by BBC Monitoring is relied upon by the MoD, FCO and is also used by other Government departments and the security and intelligence agencies. Whilst those departments have their own ‘in-house’ open source collection teams, the Government explained that they are used primarily to supplement the service provided by BBC Monitoring. Those teams act as “a focus-point” for collecting departmental open source requirements; ensuring that BBC Monitoring’s output complements the department’s own sources; and disseminating “the right product to the right user within each department”.17

16.Given that BBC Monitoring does not deal with any confidential or secret material, it is able to employ talented linguists who would not be able to work within Government departments or agencies on account of their own or their spouses’ nationalities or other factors which prevent them from meeting the requirements of vetting. By working in a dedicated open source monitoring organisation, such individuals are enabled to make valuable contributions to UK security and foreign policy, despite being disqualified from direct employment in sensitive departments or agencies.

17.The importance of BBC Monitoring’s output to Government departments was highlighted by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ):

Open source sheds light on places where information is scarce or tightly controlled and where the UK has little presence. It illustrates the sometimes distorted way in which others perceive the world, themselves and us. It gives clues as to their intentions and can supplement and confirm, or query, intelligence from other sources. It gives early warning of instability and conflict and is especially useful as the UK reduces its physical footprint abroad.18

18.Lord Campbell agreed that the work of BBC Monitoring was a key resource for the work of Government departments:

If you are trying to reach an intelligence picture, it is a bit like a jigsaw. You need bits and pieces—human intelligence, signals intelligence—but often the open source intelligence is confirmative of other things.19

As an example, he highlighted the value of that work in providing Government with a better intelligence picture of Russia:

Our relationship with [ … ] Russia is as poor as it has been for a long time. In those circumstances, 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.20

19.The importance of BBC Monitoring to the MoD was reaffirmed by the Secretary of State for Defence during Defence Questions on 12 September 2016. In answer to a Topical Question, he agreed that the service provided by BBC Monitoring was of “vital interest to the MoD”.21 In oral evidence, Admiral (Rtd) Lord West, a former First Sea Lord at the MoD, and a Security Minister in the 2005 Government, told us why open source information was important to the MoD:

We have made a decision to look outwards around the world and to deploy globally to try to nip things in the bud. A classic example of that is the Queen Elizabeth carrier, and the carrier battle group. That carrier battle group will be able to sail from the UK and go out for 500 miles a day, way out around the world—to the Far East, the Middle East or wherever. If you are operating that, with its fixed-wing aircraft and probably with Marines on some of the ships, you need to know very clearly what the problems are, where the difficulties are, what impact the movement of your ship has, where you want to be seen to be doing something, where it would be useful, where it would ease tension and where it would actually increase tension so that you don’t go there.22

This position was also supported by General (Rtd) Sir Richard Barrons, former Commander, Joint Forces Command:

We are following a complex, highly charged world, where we might recognise there are potential risks to our interests and values. Defence Intelligence is able to draw on all the work of our secret intelligence agencies, which is very focused, but none of that work is going to give Defence Intelligence a general understanding of the situation it is contemplating. This is about culture, current events, public sentiment and some analysis of aspects of society about which we may know nothing. Without that, what you are left with is just the specifics of what you have heard, talked to people about or photographed, and that will be much narrower.

General Barrons concluded by stressing that the open source information provided by BBC Monitoring was “a really key part” of understanding the country or region into which the UK was preparing to intervene.23

20.Air Marshal (Rtd) Christopher Nickols, a former Chief of Defence Intelligence, agreed. He 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. He added that it also provided valuable language expertise above and beyond what was available within the intelligence world.24 Furthermore, he said that in some cases, the material provided by BBC Monitoring could be the only information available.25

21.In evidence, we were given a flavour of the importance of BBC Monitoring in assisting Government in the formulation of its foreign policy:

During the final week of the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962:

At a time when no “hot line” connected the Kremlin with the White House, [BBC] Monitoring performed the critical role of communication between Presidents Khrushchev and Kennedy. As fear of nuclear confrontation over the Soviet missiles sited on Cuba pointing towards the USA grew day by day, the Soviet leader’s message to JFK signalling a climb-down was read out on Radio Moscow. [BBC] Russian monitors were ready and waiting. Khrushchev’s letter was translated and transmitted to Washington within minutes, helping to avert the immediate danger of thermo-nuclear war.26

During the aftermath of Chernobyl

During the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union in April 1986, the Monitoring Service started running translations of reports from various Soviet republics about their agricultural harvests, and particularly the harvest of ‘soft’ and forest fruit during that year. That provided my Institute’s researchers with the first indications that the radiation damage from the disaster was far more significant and extensive. BBC Monitoring also provided information on hospital beds’ shortages in neighbouring Poland, yet another indication that some of the damage from Chernobyl was more widespread than the authorities envisaged.27

During the Afghanistan War

In 2007 I was assisting General Andrew Mackay in the planning for his deployment to Afghanistan. He had decided that was to be an influence-led deployment and we used BBC Monitoring extensively in advance of, during and post operations to assess local and regional media coverage and address emerging issues quickly. Very often the trans-national Arab media, with their many correspondents on the ground, would report material of direct interest to us—and coverage of this was provided exclusively by BBCM.28

22.However, it is not just the UK Government which benefits from this service. BBC Monitoring also provides a service, on a commercial basis, to a wide range of intergovernmental organisations including NATO, the Organisation for Security and Co‐operation in Europe (OSCE), EU and UN; ministries and embassies of other countries; academic and research institutes; multinationals; UK and foreign media; and charities and NGOs.29 Dr Jonathan Eyal, Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnership, emphasised the importance of BBC Monitoring to the Royal United Services Institute, one of London’s premier Defence and Security think-tanks:

As someone who has led and conducted research activities at my institute over decades, I have absolutely no doubt that BBC Monitoring is a critical service, and an essential element in keeping Britain in the forefront of defence and security research, and in promoting that vital intellectual dialogue between government and think-tanks over the handling of security crises.30

23.The rarity of the product and the prestige of its customers underline the value of the service provided by BBC Monitoring. The world is becoming increasingly connected and information now travels at a speed never before known. It is important that the UK Government ensures that it has access to this information when planning to respond to crises abroad, whether it is political, military, humanitarian or medical. The service provided by BBC Monitoring is vital to that understanding.

11 BBC Monitoring, A history of Caversham

12 Attention! Moscow Calling: BBC Monitoring and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Imperial War Museum

13 Fifth Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, The future operations of BBC Monitoring, Session 2016–17, HC 732

14 Supplementary BBC written evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee, (BBC0003)

15 NUJ written evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee, (BBC0002)

16 BBC written evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee, (BBC0001)

17 HM Government (BBC0005)

18 NUJ (BBC0006)

19 Q5

20 Q3

21 HC Deb, 12 September 2016, col 598

22 Q41

23 Q58

24 Q29

25 Q41

26 Elizabeth Morley (BBC0003)

27 Dr Jonathan Eyal (BBC0007)

28 Commander (Rtd) Dr Steve Tatham (BBC0001)

29 NUJ (BBC0006)

30 Dr Jonathan Eyal (BBC0007)

16 December 2016