Government told to stump up for BBC Monitoring
26 October 2016
The money needed to save BBC Monitoring could be found down the back of the government’s sofa, an MPs’ committee was told.
Dr Julian Lewis MP
The cross-party defence select committee, chaired by Dr Julian Lewis MP, heard evidence from a set of top-brass military officers, Liberal Democrat peer and foreign affairs expert, Menzies Campbell, and Keir Giles, an associate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at the international affairs think tank, Chatham House.
They all agreed BBC Monitoring was a vital service and the recent cut of a third of its workforce would have serious consequences.
They said the government, which hugely benefits from its service, must pay up “in recognition of the national interest”.
The witnesses agreed that, apart from the equivalent United States organisation, Open Source Enterprise (OSE), BBC Monitoring provides a unique service unparalleled in Europe.
It supplies open-source information from the world’s broadcast, print and, increasingly, social and online media, selecting reports from 150 countries in 100 languages to inform its users of political, economic, security and media news.
Its main clients are the BBC and the UK government but it also provides an essential service for the foreign governments, NGOs, universities, embassies, security groups, universities, think tanks and international businesses.
In 2010 the government transferred Monitoring’s funding of to the BBC licence fee budget in a secret deal with the then director general Mark Thompson. It had previously been funded by government departments through the Cabinet Office, jointly with the BBC.
The corporation’s decision to cut the workforce by a third, including 40 per cent of its UK-based staff, and move them out of their Caversham HQ near Reading, has proved controversial. Its fate was discussed by the foreign affairs committee which took evidence from Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary.
The defence committee inquiry heard from Admiral Lord West, former Air Marshal (retd) Chris Nickols and General (retd) Sir Richard Barrons, former head of Joint Forces Command. They all agreed with Lord West’s description of BBC Monitoring as “a jewel in the crown” and that it was the height of folly to make these cuts.
Lord West explained that it mined information in countries where there was little intelligence activity and its media reports often gave a flavour of troubles to come. He said many organisations, military and otherwise, could learn what was going on in countries off the normal radar.
Keir Giles said he was concerned by the loss of Russian speakers from BBC Monitoring and thought it unlikely that government departments could find either the linguists or the expertise if they needed to replicate the service.
Lord West and Air Marshal Nickols raised concerns about the American OSE's continuing relationship with BBC Monitoring and the exchange of information if Monitoring's input was much reduced. The Americans are also based at Caversham House and it was unlikely they would go with Monitoring when it moved to London.
General Barrons said there was no doubt of the quality of BBC Monitoring, but it lacked stability because of funding insecurity. He thought the government was unlikely to be able to re-create BBCM if it was lost. “It’s absurd to be having this debate at all,” he said.
The committee was told the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Ministry of Defence, Department for International Development, Cabinet Office – and the BBC – could easily contribute to the £13m operating costs of BBC Monitoring. General Barrons said that such a small sum, in terms of the government’s budget, was the equivalent to the change found down the back of its sofa.
Stuart Seaman, BBC Monitoring rep, said he was heartened by the glowing terms used to Describe BBC Monitoring by the committee and its witnesses. He said:
“After over a decade of cuts, funding squeezes and more cuts, the latest attack on Monitoring’s budget poses an existential threat to that service. Several parts of government benefit, they should pay their fair share and the BBC should put Monitoring on a secure financial footing for the future. Monitoring’s expert, multilingual and diverse staff will continue to enhance the BBC’s newsgathering, but if they are to do the same for the national interest the government needs to act because time is running out. For what is at stake, the sums are trivial.”
Why BBC Monitoring must not be allowed to wither on the vine by Admiral Lord West