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.
My colleague Stephen Walton explains the massive scale of the operation: in 1944 the BBC was listening to around 350 broadcasts a day - a million words, in 32 languages, of which some 300,000 words were transcribed and 100,000 published. The translating and transcribing effort was of a high quality: many of the monitors were academics – they were experts in the socio-political backgrounds of ‘their’ broadcasts. They were aware also that they were creating a lasting record. As one of them, Ernst Gombrich, put it: ‘We academics believed that the Service should also provide documentation for future historians of what happened in the so-called ‘Ether War’.’
An hour of study follows, with everyone sampling the boxes they have asked to see.
We explain the difficulties of digitisation – the collection runs to 15 million sheets of paper. The advice is that we should continue our incremental approach, building up knowledge of its value and then put together a more ambitious research project.
Two of our Collaborative Doctoral Award students are currently working on the collection under Peter Busch’s supervision – one on how it was used during the Second World War, the second on what it can tell us about reactions to the Olympic Games boycott of 1980, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.