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Guest Post: ‘The Ear of Britain’: Openness and the BBC Monitoring Service

 

 Arabic Monitor 1941 © BBC

Arabic monitors at the BBC Monitoring Service’s early wartime home in Wood Norton Hall, Evesham, 1941 © BBC

 

Former IWM Collaborative Doctoral Award Student, Laura Johnson, describes her exciting research into the BBC Monitoring Service. 

The BBC Monitoring Service played an indisputable role in British intelligence during the Second World War. Their reports of international radio broadcasting, now held in the storage areas at IWM Duxford, provided the British Government with a daily assessment of news, information, propaganda, and indications of the intentions of other nations.

The fact that the Monitoring Service mainly reported on open, publicly available radio broadcasts has, however, resulted in its long absence from intelligence literature. This is because intelligence has traditionally been associated with secrecy. Whilst conducting my PhD research on the role of the BBC Monitoring Service during the Second World War, I was struck by a tension between the roles of openness and secrecy within its operation. 

At the beginning of the war it was feared that distributing BBC Monitoring reports too widely posed a security risk. The reports threatened to reveal the interests and potential plans of the government departments for whom they were prepared. Security concerns also affected the operation of the organisation.  Many of those employed to translate and report on foreign language broadcasts were refugees from central Europe, and thus non-British nationals. Measures were taken to keep them in the dark about the particular interests of Monitoring customers.

Openness, however gradually began to be seen as a more valuable guiding principle than secrecy. The first sense of this emerged in 1940 when the BBC decided to broadcast a programme entitled ‘The Ear of Britain’, which looked at the work of BBC Monitoring alongside an examination of German propaganda. Press releases for the show aimed to increase excitement with the idea of revealing the story of a secret service. The programme contrasted the insidious nature of German propaganda with the British policy of openness – to the extent of even sharing with the public the conduct of its secret work. The radio programme was regarded as the most successful piece of propaganda to date.

The advantages of relaxing restrictions on the sharing of information gradually began to alter the operation of the BBC Monitoring Service itself. By the end of the war, Monitoring reports were being widely distributed, not only within the Britain administration, but also to the governments in exile, press organisations, and perhaps most importantly to the United States, whose own monitoring operations collaborated closely with Britain’s. It was further realised that BBC Monitoring employees could not conduct their work effectively without some idea of what customers wanted to hear, and steps were introduced to make employees more aware of how their reports were used.

The wartime BBC Monitoring Service thus came to display a trust in their customers, in their employees, and even in the wider British public. Without denying the vital contribution of clandestine wartime intelligence activities, perhaps it is time to consider more deeply this historic instance of successful openness.

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