COMMONS

BBC cuts to monitoring service will undermine information-gathering for UK defence and security

20 December 2016

The Defence Committee warns that the BBC's plans to cut the funding and staff of BBC Monitoring (BBCM), and to close its dedicated headquarters in Berkshire, will "put at risk the vital future provision of open source information" – occasionally referred to as open source intelligence – which BBCM supplies to Government departments, notably, the Ministry of Defence, Foreign Office and Intelligence Services.

BBCM, which collates, translates and analyses foreign broadcasts and other open source material, including social media, for both Government and commercial customers, is threatened with the loss of almost 100 of its 320 personnel. Most of the job losses will take place in the UK, creating greater dependency on staff based in locations where their ability to function may be subject to pressure and constraint. For this and other reasons, the Committee’s Report is entitled: Open Source Stupidity.

Link between BBCM and its US equivalent

In particular, the BBC plans to break the physical link between BBCM and its US equivalent, Open Source Enterprise (OSE) which is currently in the same building at Caversham Park, near Reading. BBC Monitoring staff are to be moved to Central London, though no dedicated location has yet been identified, and OSE will have to find an entirely separate headquarters, thus weakening the relationship between the two organisations. Currently, they freely share the information they monitor – which works greatly to the UK’s advantage, as the Americans cover 75% of the globe’s foreign media, trading their product for the remaining 25% covered by BBCM.

The BBC wishes to sell Caversham Park and keep the proceeds, even though the estate was purchased with public money supplied on the basis that Caversham would be used for monitoring foreign broadcasts on behalf of Government departments and agencies. The Committee questions whether the BBC is the legal owner of the property, whether it should retain the proceeds even if ownership is proved, and whether the proposed move is in the national interest.

Government should reinstate its previous model of funding BBC Monitoring

The Report recommends that:

  • The Government should reinstate its previous model of funding BBC Monitoring through a ring-fenced grant-in-aid, rather than allowing the funding to come from the licence fee.
  • At the very least, the Government should pay for the retention of the Video Unit, currently scheduled for closure because almost all its work is carried out for a single customer – the Ministry of Defence.
  • BBC Monitoring should remain co-located with its US counterpart, OSE, at Caversham Park; but, if the property is sold, the money must revert to the Government.
  • If the cuts and relocation do go ahead, and if the Government fails to receive the standard of service required and previously supplied, then the Government should set up a state-owned Open Source Information Agency, thus relieving the BBC of a role with which it appears to be uncomfortable.

Chair's comments

Dr Julian Lewis, Defence Committee chairman, said:

"The Coalition Government was warned, in the strongest possible terms, not to leave the BBC Monitoring service unprotected by ending its ring-fenced annual grant and transferring this minor financial burden to the licence-fee payer. By doing so, it gave the BBC a free hand to inflict successive rounds of cuts, now culminating in the loss of the specialised and dedicated Caversham headquarters. 

The vast increase in open source information in the recent past makes it one of the few tools still left in the Government’s arsenal which can provide almost real time information and analysis on global developments. To allow the BBC to change and shape it in a different direction is in contravention of UK national interest. It is especially bewildering when you consider the annual cost of BBC Monitoring is around £25 million.

The decision to evict BBC Monitoring’s US counterpart—Open Source Enterprise—from its UK base at Caversham Park and break the physical link between the two is short-sighted. The BBC’s strategy for BBC monitoring will downgrade our contribution to open-source intelligence sharing between the UK and the US at a time when European nations must demonstrate to President-Elect Trump that we are committed to paying our way in the fields of defence and security. As one of our witnesses said ‘this is the height of folly.""

Further information

Image: PA

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