BBC Monitoring translates and analyses news and information from freely available media sources in 100 different languages and covering 150 countries around the world. Its output, which consists of both verbatim translations and analytic or thematic briefings, feeds into BBC news services and is available to the UK Government and others. Its work is highly valued by Government.
Because of a shortfall of £4 million in funding for BBC Monitoring, the BBC plans to restructure it. Roles would change, 98 posts would be lost, and BBC Monitoring would relocate from Caversham Park, near Reading, to London. The proposed cuts are substantial and would change the organisation radically. They involve some justifiable attempts at rationalisation and are accompanied by welcome technological investment; but we conclude that BBC Monitoring’s capability would nonetheless diminish.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office needs to be the eyes and ears of the UK abroad, picking up signals and undercurrents which help to indicate where the tide is flowing, spotting where threats to the UK’s security and other interests may surface, and helping to form policy on how the UK should handle those threats. BBC Monitoring is one of its key sources of information. Given the increase in social media output, the Government is in greater need than ever of an extensive and well-resourced monitoring service. We do not believe that a reduction in BBC Monitoring’s capability would help the FCO to improve its track record and we do not believe that it would be in the interests of the UK Government.
The Government is the prime customer for open-source monitoring output, and until 2013 the Government provided most of the funding for BBC Monitoring. Under a deal between the Government and the BBC at the time of the 2010 Spending Review, the Government passed that responsibility on to the BBC, and we believe that was a mistake. The motivation for the transfer was presentational, with predictable—and predicted—substantial consequences. The taxpayer is the main beneficiary of BBC Monitoring’s work, not the licence fee payer; and logically the taxpayer should fund it. There is no good reason why the Government should expect to have the benefit of a product which is key to policy-making without providing funding for it. Other countries with similar operations fund them from central government.
The Government should reverse the changes made in 2013 and should restore Government funding for open source monitoring of media sources overseas, whether that is performed by BBC Monitoring or whether the Government does the work itself. Any transfer of the monitoring function from BBC Monitoring to the Government should only take place if it can be achieved without losing the expertise of those currently working for BBC Monitoring.
28 October 2016