A feature piece written for the 2001 edition of the World Radio & TV Handbook.
The BBC Monitoring Service, Caversham
There are many radio monitoring organisations in various parts of the world. Some of them (such as Britain’s GCHQ) are principally concerned with military, diplomatic and governmental material, much of which is encrypted and not designed to be read or understood by other than the intended recipient. Others are of more direct interest to the HF listener, since in a sense they do what ordinary listeners do but on an infinitely larger scale. These are the broadcast monitoring stations, of which perhaps the best-known is the BBC Monitoring Service. Whilst many listeners have heard of the organisation, there seems to have been relatively little information published about its history and purpose. With this in mind, WRTH paid them a visit.
Radio broadcast monitoring in Britain has a long history. It is generally considered to have begun in May 1917, when the then Home Secretary ordered the formation of a small department at Scotland Yard to listen to German broadcasts and report to him on their content. The ‘broadcasts’ in question consisted of music and talks transmitted by one Hans Bredov to the troops on the Western Front. Little else seems to have been carried out until the winter of 1935, when the Foreign Office began monitoring English-language news bulletins transmitted from Italy. The intention was to gain information about the progress of the Italo-Abyssinian War. Monitoring of Arabic broadcasts from Italy followed in 1937, and programmes directed to South America from Germany began to be the subject of Foreign Office attention the following year. Most of the monitoring was undertaken by the then ‘BBC Receiving Station’ at Tatsfield, although the Foreign Office also had a site at Sandridge near St Albans. Both had circuits to Broadcasting House.
By this time, of course, the BBC had itself begun broadcasting to an overseas audience via the ‘Empire Service’. Initially its coverage was chiefly what would nowadays be called the Near and Middle East. It was soon realised in London that listening to indigenous programmes broadcast from the target area would provide useful input into BBC transmissions. By the end of 1938 news bulletins from several European countries as well as Tokyo and New York were being monitored at Tatsfield. However, with the threat of war was looming, it was decided in April 1939 that a dedicated ‘Monitoring Unit’ should be set up. Its function would be to provide input both to BBC news programmes and to the newly formed Ministry of Information, although the latter declined to contribute to its financing. As related by Edward Pawley in his excellent book BBC Engineering 1922-1972, the Corporation "…purchased out of its own funds a wooden hut, six receivers and material for simple aerials for the sum of £810 in the hope of recovering this outlay from the Ministry later on". Whether it ever did is not recorded.
In the week before war was declared, the Monitoring Unit moved from London to Wood Norton, near Evesham, taking residence in a motley collection of wooden huts. Two teleprinter circuits linked the unit to the BBC News Department and the Ministry of Information. It functioned well, listening on a 24-hour basis to all forms of broadcast transmissions in voice, Morse and even teleprinter, and expansion was rapid. By 1943 it was clear that the scope for further development at Wood Norton was limited and the unit (now renamed the ‘Monitoring Service’) moved to Caversham Park, near Reading. As well as a large mansion house, which offered far more room than that available at Wood Norton, 109 acres of land were acquired at the same time. A second site at Crowsley Park, some 5km from Caversham Park, was also acquired for use as a receiver site. Both remain in use today. Incidentally, although technically the correct names for the sites are Caversham Park and Crowsley Park, they usually seem to be referred to as ‘Caversham’ and ‘Crowsley’ respectively - a usage we have followed here.
Not long after the move to Caversham, the Monitoring Service entered into an important partnership with the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS). This American entity began operations in 1941 along the same lines as the BBC Monitoring Service but as the result of a more directly governmental initiative. Nowadays FBIS is part of the CIA and its primary user is the US government. As part of the 1948 UKUSA Agreement, the BBC and FBIS agreed to exchange information derived from monitored material and divided the world into areas of interest. This arrangement continues, with FBIS occupying part of the Caversham site and operating in close conjunction with the BBC.
For the remainder of the war, the Monitoring Service provided news and intelligence to all government departments, with direct links to the Prime Minister and his War Cabinet. By 1945 there was a staff of about 1,000, many of whom were (and still are) expatriates.
In a sense, little has changed. The BBC defines the role of its Monitoring Service as "…reporting foreign news media comprehensively and accurately, without bias or comment". In the early days this involved monitoring HF broadcasts together with news-agency transmissions. Nowadays, with the enormous advances that have taken place in communications technologies, the service monitors radio but satellite and terrestrial television, the press, news agencies and even the Internet. At the time of our visit, this implied coverage of 154 different countries and something in excess of 100 different languages. The customer base is described by the BBC as "a range of official and commercial customers", and an enormous amount of information is available to those who request it.
At any one time, BBC Monitoring is receiving up to 37 television broadcasts and over 100 radio services. As mentioned earlier, the main receiving station is located at Crowsley Park, with the grounds occupying about 60 hectares in an electrically very quiet area. There is even an agreement with the local electricity company not to route overhead power cables across the site!
The antenna system is awesome. There is a complete set of Beverages, some of which are 1km in length for long- and medium-wave coverage. These are spaced at about 20° intervals between 040° and 300° . By all accounts these also work quite well in some HF bands, although the major HF workhorse antenna at Crowsley Park remains the elegant rhombic. There are also a couple of log-periodics and a reversible curtain array oriented east-west. Crowsley Park currently has six satellite receiver dishes ranging between 1× 2 and 11× 3m in diameter. A further 14 dishes (mostly from Scientific Atlanta) are located at Caversham, and the largest of these is 10m. A remote-control switching system allows operators at Caversham to feed signals from any of 32 antennas to any of 128 receivers at Crowsley, and the output of 7 of the 24 satellite receivers can be sent across video links between the two sites. Satellites in geostationary orbit between about 70° W and 70° E are visible from Crowsley, and the four 11m dishes there are steerable from horizon to horizon under remote control from Caversham. These are obviously used for the lower-elevation satellites at the extreme ends of the viewing arc. Satellites closer to Europe are monitored from the Caversham dishes.
It is interesting to recall that the first dish antenna went into operation at Crowsley as recently as 1981, to cover one of the then-USSR television channels. Since then, there has been an enormous increase in the number of radio and television services received via satellite, and ‘BBC Monitoring’ (as the service is now known) states that about 70 per cent of its traffic is now taken from these sources. Nevertheless, HF broadcasting remains an area of great interest. The standard receiver in use is the Watkins-Johnson WJ-8711 which covers 150kHz-30MHz. These came into service in the early 1990s, replacing the Racal RA1793, and there are currently about 80 operational. Other receivers used at Caversham over the years have included the Racal RA17, GEC BRT400 and Plessey PR155.
Although the reception capabilities of Caversham and Crowsley are formidably good, not every broadcast in the world can be monitored from there. Apart from anything else, the vagaries of HF propagation would make consistent coverage impossible. Equally, there are parts of the world (such as Afghanistan) from where reliable reception in the UK is very difficult. For this reason BBC Monitoring has several ‘outstations’ in different parts of the world. The first to be opened was the East African Unit (EAU), which commenced operations from Karen, near the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, in 1961. It was originally established at the request of the UK government to monitor broadcasts from and to East and Central Africa that could not be covered at Caversham, either because of inaudibility or lack of linguists. Today the EAU’s coverage includes radio TV, news agencies and press sources in Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania, the former Zaire, Malawi and elsewhere.
For a time there was also a Central African Unit. When opened in 1965 it was located in Francistown, Botswana but moved to Blantyre in Malawi and again to Lilongwe. It closed in 1982 and its functions were taken over by the EAU in Nairobi and also the FBIS bureau in Mbabane, Swaziland.
During the Cold War, it goes without saying that much of BBC Monitoring’s effort was directed towards listening to the Eastern Bloc countries. Transmissions from Radio Moscow were easily audible at Caversham (as indeed they seemed to be everywhere in the world) and many other regional broadcasts were also not difficult to hear in the UK. However, there remained some gaps in the coverage. After the break-up of the USSR in 1991 and the general easing of tension, the previously unthinkable became possible and a small monitoring post was set up in Moscow. Known as MCU, this nowadays covers chiefly television stations not carried on satellite and some other regional outlets.
Political and social developments in Central Asia are clearly of great interest to many customers of BBC Monitoring. One of the practical consequences of the break-up of the former USSR was the cessation of routine rebroadcasting of local radio and TV services, some of which had been of considerable importance to Caversham’s customers. To address this shortfall, the Central Asia Unit (CAU) was set up in Tashkent, Uzbekhistan in 1994 to improve coverage of the five former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekhistan. The unit covers both the media of these countries and some external sources. These include a service of Iranian radio broadcasting to Tajikistan and Uzbekhistan. As mentioned earlier, Afghanistan has been a very difficult target for Caversham for many years. In April 1998 the CAU took over responsibility for this work, monitoring both Taleban and opposition broadcasts. The unit has local monitoring staff who translate from all the languages of the region, supported by three English-speaking editors. It covers the traditional range of sources and hopes also to develop coverage of the western Chinese province of Xinjiang, which has ethnic ties with regions in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
With Russia to the north and Turkey and Iran to the south, the Caucasus has always been a region of ethnic tension and imperial ambition. Development of the large oilfields in the Caspian Sea has heightened interest in Azerbaijan in particular. The Transcaucasus Unit (TCU) was established in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku in January 1997, with the initial task being to provide coverage of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. The first two had previously been handled by FBIS, whilst Georgia was covered at Caversham via a remote receiver in Tbilisi. The Baku unit now handles a full range of sources in Azerbaijan and is extending coverage of Armenia. It is also expanding its activities to the north to monitor as far as possible sources in Chechnya and Dagestan and to the south to monitor north-western Iran.
Finally there is the Kiev Unit (KVU). Located in the capital of Europe’s second largest country, the unit was established in 1998 to cover radio, TV, news agencies and press sources in Ukraine and Belarus. Coverage of these countries had previously been shared between Caversham and the FBIS. Monitoring of all Ukrainian media and most of Belarus’ is now the responsibility of KVU. With many unresolved issues arising from the dissolution of the former USSR, there continues to be considerable interest in the relations between these countries and Russia and their approach to issues such as the expansion of Europe, in addition to their internal political and social developments.
In addition to these dedicated units, Caversham also has other means of acquiring signals from around the world. It makes considerable use of an Australian-made device called the ‘Radphone 2000’, which amounts to an Icom IC-R8500 fully controllable via a dial-up remote keypad. It also uses Icom IC-PCR1000 receivers in combination with suitable laptop computers, with the audio being recovered via the Internet. No doubt several British embassies and other suitably placed sites around the globe have such facilities within their walls.
All in all, there is no doubt that BBC Monitoring’s capabilities are exceedingly comprehensive. However, it should perhaps be stressed that all its monitoring is confined to open sources. It does not listen to military, diplomatic or other networks of any kind and does not even take internal point-to-point news feeds such as those commonly seen via satellite.
Of the millions of words monitored each day by BBC and FBIS staff, it is necessary to select, edit and publish some 150,000. Although the technology of doing so has changed radically in recent years, the process still relies on human judgment. Every broadcast is listened to by a monitor, who needs not only the appropriate language skill but also regional knowledge and the ability to abstract the essentials from a story. For much of the last fifty years, the production technology consisted largely of typewriters, teleprinters and duplicating machines; as recently as the early 1980s the original Listening Room at Caversham was an astonishingly noisy place, although as if by way of compensation its canteen (located in what was the old orangery) was reputed to be the best in the BBC! However, it was becoming clear by the mid-1980s that the heavily paper-based processes of monitoring and distribution would have to give way to something more modern. The project came to fruition in 1989 when the brand-new ‘West Wing’ Listening Room was opened. Amongst other things this was connected to a large mainframe computer which handled transcription, editing and electronic intake. It also dealt with some aspects of the distribution of monitored material.
Products and Production
In the early days of the Monitoring Unit, the main output was the daily ‘Digest’. This was a compilation of edited transcripts of overseas broadcasts. In later years this became the well-known Summary of World Broadcasts, usually abbreviated to ‘SWB’. This title has survived several major changes in format, composition and presentation and now consists of five separate regionally based items which themselves are published in daily and weekly versions. However, as customers increasingly take Caversham’s output in electronic form, the future of the SWBs is under constant review. BBC Monitoring’s biggest output is now the Newsfile, a 24-hour on-line newswire service carrying important stories from around the world. Production and despatch of the Newsfile by computer began in 1989 and it continues to provide a stream of material, principally of course to the BBC World Service newsroom at Bush House but also to other customers. The Newsfile is augmented by other on-line files carrying more detailed political, economic and technical news on a regional basis.
Most of Caversham’s output is now available via an Internet database. This currently carries something over 240,000 stories covering a period of 12 months and embodies a very clever and powerful search engine. It is continuously updated as news breaks. Regrettably one requires a user account and password to access the database, and no doubt is not cheap!
As if all this were not enough, BBC Monitoring also produces two further weekly publications, Inside Central Asia and World Media. The latter is produced by the Foreign Media Unit and is a weekly publication of 30 pages. It contains edited reports of developments in the world’s external and domestic media, whether political, economic, legal, organisational, programming or technical. It is available in electronic and printed format. World Media is recognized as authoritative in its field and its subscribers include the BBC’s Director-General and the Managing Director of World Service, together with several government departments or agencies in the UK and abroad. There is also a healthy commercial customer base. Inside Central Asia is a weekly publication which takes the form of a briefing document. Its areas of coverage are essentially those of the CAU.
It is usually assumed that BBC Monitoring is paid for out of the UK broadcast licence fee, but this is far from the case. Until relatively recently it was funded by what was known as a ‘grant-in-aid’ from the Foreign Office - as indeed the BBC World Service still is. No doubt there was some financial and material assistance from the FBIS in addition. Nowadays BBC Monitoring is largely funded by its major customers, namely the Foreign Office (or, to give it its correct title, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office or FCO), the Ministry of Defence and the BBC itself. A small amount of residual grant-in-aid remains, and in a recent spending review BBC Monitoring was allocated an additional £5m for the period 2001-2004.
BBC Monitoring is an enormously impressive organisation, with massive capabilities. It is tempting to think that after the end of the Cold War and the break-up of the former USSR, the world ought to be a much more stable place and the requirement for entities such as BBC Monitoring ought to have scaled down or ceased. The truth is rather more complex, and it can be argued that the polarised certainties of the Cold War era have given way to something much more fragmented and complex. On that basis the need for Caversham and its outstations has probably increased, not reduced. We have no doubt that Caversham, Crowsley and the various outstations will remain state-of-the-art receiving and monitoring centres for many years to come. And the next time you are listening to a news broadcast from an HF station from some far-flung corner of the earth, remember that someone somewhere in BBC Monitoring is almost certainly listening to it as well!
Acknowledgment is made to BBC Monitoring for permission to use some material from its excellent Web site in the preparation of this feature.
© Crew Green Consulting Ltd, 2001 & 2004
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