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The BBC Monitoring Service archive and the 1980 Moscow Olympics

Image of the BBC monitoring reports in store

The BBC monitoring reports in store.

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.

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  1. Simon Young says: May 5, 20128:34 pm

    Dear Chris,
    This looks like a fascinating study. Will you be using only English-language based sources in the UK for your research, or will it involve an examination of Russian sources? The subject of my research is also the 1980 Olympics Games, and I intend partly to examine the issue of propaganda, though in its domestic dimension of how the Games were presented to the Soviet public. I would be very interested to hear more about your research.

  2. Chris Deal says: May 15, 20128:28 am

    Dear Simon,

    The sources I am currently using are all English language, although in part that does not matter so much as a large amount of the Radio Moscow material I look at was broadcast in English anyway – to North America, Britain & Ireland, Asia, Africa, and the Radio Moscow World Service. There is also TASS material which was available in both English and Russian – both of which hare been recorded and stored at Duxford as well. Otherwise, the radio material, such as that which Radio Moscow broadcast to a ‘home’ audience, something you will probably be interested in, has been translated from the original language into English by the Monitoring Service, and then an edited version (in the form of the Daily Digest) would have been passed on to any relevant government department or media outlet.

    This does bring up the question of translation accuracy, but the Monitoring Service had various checks and balances (such as very simply someone else listening to a broadcast) as a manner of dealing with this. On occasion, words with a multitude of meanings appear in brackets next to the monitors opinion of the translation, so the meaning can be reinterpreted if necessary. So whilst word for word there may be the occasional discrepancy, the overall accuracy is very high.

    The other translated source I have been using is the Current Digest of the Soviet Press, which is a collection of Soviet newspaper stories from the likes of Pravda, translated in English by a team of academics. I don’t know if you have used it, but in my experience it has been very useful for cross referencing material also broadcast via the radio – although as something of an academic side project it lacks the comprehensiveness of the Monitoring Service material and specific articles can be difficult to find. That is not to take away from its usefulness though. My university has just got a trial access to it via something called East View Information Services Online, which has made searching it easier. I have previously used the collection in the School of Slavic and Eastern European Studies (part of UCL) library near Euston station, London. If you read Russian (even if you don’t) this library is certainly worth looking at.

    My research itself is focused on how Radio Moscow took different approaches depending on what part of the world it was broadcasting to when defending the invasion of Afghanistan and attacking the proposed boycott. For this I have been looking at broadcasts between December 1979 and late-July 1980, and to narrow down the material I am looking at the broadcasting around key moments of the invasion and boycott campaign – so the initial reporting after the invasion, that surrounding the US State of the Union address, broadcasts at the time of the opening ceremony and throughout the games, and so forth. I am looking primarily at three main regional broadcasts – to North America, to GB, and to the Soviet Union, as these give a good coverage of the range of opinions over the boycott, but I also use the others available via the Monitored broadcasts, such as Arabic or Amharic. The study looks at how the ways RM ‘framed’ events surrounding the invasion and boycott varied depending on such things as local factors, the interests of the audience, and the state-Soviet relationship.

    Have you read Hazan’s book ‘Olympic Sports and Propaganda Games’? It looks at the way the Soviet Union presented the Games to audiences from about 1974 onward, it may even go slightly further back to the failed bid for the 1976 Games as well. What sources are you using for your work? It sounds fascinating and I would love to read it when you have finished!



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