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.
The visit of Margaret Thatcher to the Cabinet War Rooms, 4 April 1984. IWM-1984-15-1.
With all the recent coverage of the life and times of Margaret Thatcher, I thought it might be interesting to delve into the Radio Moscow material stored at Duxford to see how the election of Britain’s first female Prime Minister was reported to British listeners by a Soviet media source. Expecting a diatribe against the ‘Iron Lady’ from a committed ideological opponent, I was surprised to find instead concentrated criticism of James Callaghan’s outgoing Labour government.
Initial analysis found only a passing reference to Thatcher. There was an official greeting offered by Soviet Statesman Aleksey Kosygin and an acknowledgement that the first woman Prime Minister had made history. Otherwise, Radio Moscow reserved its criticism for Callaghan, and his predecessor Harold Wilson, accusing them of losing the election and attacking them on terms that would later become familiar amongst opponents of Thatcher.
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.
The BBC monitoring reports in store
The wooden library trolley creaks into our Board Room. Piled on its shelves are around twenty boxes of transcripts made by the BBC Monitoring Service during and after the Second World War. Around the table are gathered four academics – Professor Hilary Footitt, Professor David Welch, Dr Alban Webb and Dr Peter Busch – who have kindly agreed to give us their thoughts on where we go next with this large, academically potent collection.
The reports were compiled by specially-recruited linguists (many of them refugees from Nazi Europe), to furnish the wartime government with an additional source of intelligence – how events were being reported on the radio within Axis and occupied countries. The reports show what the British Government knew from this ‘Open Source intelligence’, when they knew it and how that knowledge was used.