The BBC Monitoring Service archive and the 1980 Moscow Olympics
My PhD involves researching into how the Soviet Union portrayed the 1980 Moscow Olympic boycott to the world, via the medium of shortwave radio. In doing this I spend a lot of time examining Radio Moscow broadcasts recorded and transcribed by the BBC Monitoring Service, an archive in iWM Collections, which is stored in the old NAFFI building at Duxford airfield. The archive provides a fascinating insight into the world of 1980, the politics of the cold war, and the uses of media outlets for pushing propaganda lines to different groups of people.
Reading the words of broadcasts that went directly into the ears of listeners all around the world, the Radio Moscow material shows how the boycott campaign evolved from just weeks after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 all the way through to the end of the Olympic Games themselves. As you might expect with the Olympics, there are many similarities between the promotion of the Games in 1980 and those about to happen, in little under 100 days’ time. The transcriptions provide an insight into Olympic quizzes, interviews with Olympians, the route the Olympic torch was due to take, and much more. As with the Games and Britain in 2012, in 1980 there was also a lot about how the Olympics can promote the Soviet Union to the world.
What interests me more than these though, and what the archive provides an even greater insight into, is the international relations of 1980. Unlike 2012 and the Iranian boycott threat, Moscow suffered from the biggest sporting boycott yet seen. That was not how Radio Moscow portrayed it.
Rather than seeing the evolution of the boycott campaign, and more broadly the evolution of the reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, through the eyes of western policy makers (these documents are becoming available at Kew Archives now as the thirty year rule kicks in), the Monitoring archives provide a uniquely Soviet perspective. Through this, I have also been able to examine how news was ‘framed’ by the likes of Radio Moscow (the political spin), and, through cross-referencing with other archival material, see how selective quotations from the foreign press were used to support the Soviet argument.
An example is the way in which Radio Moscow reported the British government vote to condemn the invasion of Afghanistan and support a boycott of the Olympics. A quick check of Hansard will show the precise motion the House of Commons voted for, but a look at the Monitoring archive provides a somewhat different story. Not only does it show that Radio Moscow failed to discuss this vote until after the British Olympic Association had rejected it, thus providing Soviet radio the opportunity to say the government had lost, but the manner of the reporting highlights some of the tricks used to frame events in a pro-Soviet way. As presented by the Monitoring archive, Radio Moscow informed British listeners about the Commons vote without reference to Afghanistan, as an ‘anti-Olympic show staged by Mrs Margaret Thatcher’, and as a sop to the Americans. There was never any suggestion they brought it on themselves.
There are many more examples in the archive similar to this but I have also found interesting just how similar the reporting of the build-up to an Olympic Games can be. Whilst there is nothing on a par with the boycott of 1980 in the build-up to London, and regardless of the underlying politics behind them, both Olympics seem to be promoted by the media using similar types of story. It is also fascinating to see a different viewpoint on many of the events of the past 70 years. The archive opens up the possibility of examining, almost word-for-word, these different opinions in a way that has not been done before.