MPs urge government to increase funding for overseas media monitoring tool

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez October 31, 2016
Summary:
The BBC monitoring tool analyses news and information from freely available media sources in 100 different languages and covering 150 countries around the world.

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Although the general public may not be aware of it, one of the most widely used tools at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and the intelligence agencies for monitoring media outlets abroad is the BBC Monitoring service.

BBC Monitoring was set up in 1939 to listen in on World War II propaganda broadcast on behalf of the government. Nowadays BBC Monitoring translates and analyses new and information from media sources in 100 different languages and covers 150 countries around the world - including TV, radio, the press and social media.

It is highly valued by the government and is one of the key sources of information for what’s happening abroad - allowing departments and intelligence services to pick up threats to UK security.

However, following the 2010 Spending Review, responsibility for funding the BBC Monitoring tool shifted from the government to the BBC, which has resulted in a £4 million in shortfall in funding. MPs on the Foreign Affairs Committee have warned that this drop in funding would “diminish” the tool’s capabilities and a planned restructure - because of the drop in funding - would “change the organisation dramatically.

The Health Committee believes that the changing in funding structures was a mistake and that the government needs to reconsider how it can support the ongoing BBC Monitoring service. The report notes:

No-one, in evidence to us, questioned the value of BBC Monitoring’s work. Michelle Stanistreet, representing the NUJ, argued that it was “more strategically important than ever” given the pace of global developments and widespread instability.

We note that when the Secretary of State for Defence was recently invited to confirm that the service provided by BBC Monitoring to open-source intelligence was of vital interest to the Ministry of Defence, he did so readily and without qualification.

Reconsider

A new scheme is being negotiated by the Government and the BBC and will likely take hold in the new year. MPs on the committee have questioned whether or not the government’s needs will be met under the restructuring plan - and argue that if anything demand for its services will only increase given the increase in online content available via social channels. The report argues:

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.

Changing needs

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In addition to the problem of funding, the MPs on the Committee argue that the role of BBC Monitoring is having to change dramatically, in order to cater for the “massive increase” in sources, arising largely from social media.

This means that no amount of funding would allow BBC Monitoring to conduct full coverage of open-source media around the world and that it had to become much more focused. The report states:

BBC Monitoring had invested £10 million in new technology, to change the service it could deliver and to select, present and deliver key sources to users. Total investment in the change programme would be £13 million. Mr Deane, Head of Knowledge Management at the FCO, told us that a new BBC Monitoring portal would give FCO officials an ability to “interrogate” e-mail alerts from BBC Monitoring and that their ability to use the data would increase significantly as a result of the new technology.

The roles of BBC Monitoring staff are also changing. The BBC told us that digital working would be “a driving force to the future success of BBC Monitoring, giving the ability to include data, stills, graphics and video, where relevant, as part of the core offering to consumers”. It sees its staff as “digital journalists” and spoke of the need for them to be “confident and fluent in handling the different formats and platforms” and to be “able to scan and source digital media.

However, it also questioned whether or not the government’s needs are being met at present, because of trivial stories that are appearing as a result of monitoring Twitter and Facebook feeds. Whilst the BBC denied that content has been ‘dumbed down’, the report suggests that this could get worse if cuts to staff are made - as solely relying on computers to analyse isn’t entirely effective. It states:

The NUJ told us that the provision of computer-selected data without human intervention had its limitations, and that if staff numbers were to be cut, BBC Monitoring’s output would “become more of a bulk service that is pumped out to clients, rather than something which is digested with…skill and expertise”.

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