Cuts to open source monitoring tool could impact MoD intelligence, warn MPs

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez December 19, 2016
Summary:
The House of Commons Defence Committee has said that the government made a “serious mistake” in cutting funding for the BBC Monitoring tool.

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Although it isn’t a well known tool outside of the institutions of Whitehall, BBC Monitoring has been a valuable source of information and intel for government departments since World War II. Since 1939 it has provided government insight into information from media sources all over the world - now translating and analysing data in 100 different languages, from 150 countries.

It is one of the key tools used to understand what is happening abroad - allowing departments and intelligence services to pick up threats to UK security.

BBC Monitoring is one of the few open source information gathering agencies, which has a global reach through its partnership with its US counterpart, Open Source Enterprise (OSE). BBC Monitoring covers 25% of the world and OSE the remaining 75%.

However, following the 2010 Spending Review, responsibility for funding the tool shifted from the government to the BBC, which resulted in a £4 million shortfall in funding. And subsequent changes and cuts are putting the government at risk of being without the necessary information it needs, particularly as open source media via social networks continues to increase.

MPs on the House of Commons Defence Committee have attacked the government today for its handling of the tool. In a report entitled “Open Source Stupidity: The Threat to the BBC Monitoring Service”, the Committee highlights the value derived from the tool. The report reads:

The complementarity of this arrangement for sharing open source information represents a huge return for the United Kingdom on the modest costs of the operation (which are around £25 million per annum).

Such global coverage is vital to the understanding not only of Government departments, including the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the Intelligence Services but also NGOs and private organisations. This information is not currently available from any other provider.”

We remain deeply concerned that the proposed changes to BBC Monitoring and the cuts to its funding will have a harmful impact on the provision of information to the Government, and, in particular, to the MoD. In the current climate of world instability, this should be of great concern to Ministers.

Changing hands

The Committee outlines how that for decades BBC Monitoring was funded by departmental grants and then a ring-fenced sum from its principal client, the government. However, in 2010 the agreement between the Coalition Government and the BBC transferred funding responsibility to the licence-payer.

The report states that that decision “removed the security and certainty” of funding fro BBC Monitoring, “and - entirely predictably - laid it open to successive cuts as a result of general economies in BBC budgets”.

To add to the financial woes, the Monitoring team is facing the loss of its HQ in Caversham Park and as a result many of its specialist staff that have no desire to relocate. According to the Committee, the restructuring will result in almost 100 job losses and those who remain will take on “significantly broader duties”.

The remaining team will likely be relocated to central London, which MPs argue will loosen and weaken the relationship with OSE, which it currently shares a workspace with. The report states:

The benefits of such a move remain completely obscure, not least because of the absence of any concrete plan for future dedicated premises and the uncertainty over whether the BBC or the Government would gain financially from any subsequent sale of Caversham Park.

Concern

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MPs on the Committee today said that they are “convinced” and “gravely concerned” that the proposed changes to BBC Monitoring will lead to the degradation of the service provided - as service, it claims, that the government cannot afford to lose.

The report argues that the changes put the government at risk of losing out on the vital future provision of opens source information. The Committee warns:

We have seen no evidence of a drop in demand within Government for open-source monitoring. If anything, given the increase in social media output, the Government is in greater need than ever of an extensive and well-resourced monitoring service. The Government is the prime customer, and there is no good reason why it 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.

It was a mistake to end Government funding for BBC Monitoring. The motivation for this change was presentational, with predictable—and predicted—substantial consequences. 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.

The decisions made concerning the funding and governance of BBC Monitoring over the past decade or so have been woefully short-sighted and catastrophically ill thought-out. A service that has the potential to be a vital tool in opening the world to UK diplomacy and business is in grave danger of becoming a hollow shell of its former existence.

My take

These are incredibly strong words of warning from the Committee. It seems that the government and the BBC have been engaging in a game of not wanting to take responsibility for something vitally important because of the (moderate) costs associated. I can fully understand why the BBC doesn’t want to fund the tool, given that the government is the only customer.

Given that there is more information than ever available for analysis, and the state of international affairs, the government should stop wasting time, reinstate the funding and get on with it.