British national newspapers love to carry exclusive stories - and
to boast about them. If BBC Monitoring were a national newspaper,
the rest of Fleet Street would be in a constant state of envy.
Whether it is Mr Gorbachev appealing for calm in the Armenian disturbances,
the shooting down of an Afghan airline by Mujahedin rebels, a coup
in Burundi, or the release of an Ulster nurse by Sudanese guerrillas,
it is the monitoring service which broke the news to the world.
The examples are random and relate only to the recent past. BBC
Monitoring has quietly sustained that kind of record since its inception
just before World War Two.
It has many milestones in its history, announcing the news that
is flashed around the world: Hitler's death in 1945; Nasser's nationalisation
of the Suez Canal and the Hungarian uprising in 1956; the end of
the Cuban missile crisis in 1962; the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia
in 1968; the declaration of martial law in Poland 13 years later.
up at the government's request to listen to the output of the world's
radio stations, BBC Monitoring is based at Caversham Park in the
Berkshire countryside, as it has been since 1943. Its receiving
aerials and satellite dishes are sited four miles away at Crowsley
In 1947, the service and its American equivalent, the Foreign Broadcasting
Information Service, reached a formal agreement for the complete
exchange of monitored material. Effectively, the BBC and the Americans
divide the world between them, the BBC concentrating on Europe,
the Middle East and Africa, with a unit in Kenya.
At its wartime peak, BBC Monitoring needed 1,000 people, Today
it has half that number, which includes a substantial number of
multilingual monitors who can switch from language to language as
the need arises.
The service's workload is staggering. Monitors, operating shifts
around the clock, listen to some 200 hours of broadcasting a day
in about 35 languages from some 50 countries. Another 300 hours
of monitoring is provided daily by about 25 news agencies. Altogether,
with the American input, news and information from about 130 countries
It all adds up to 3/4-miIlion words, which have to be sifted by
editorial staff who produce
a 24-hour newsfile and a printed summary of world broadcasts.
The daily newsfile of up to 12,000 words, is teleprinted to consumers
in the BBC, other news organisations and government departments.
When martial law was declared in Poland in 1981; 16 international
news agencies and newspapers and radio stations in Europe, Asia
and the USA subscribed to the Polish file. Other 'best-sellers'
have been broadcasts from Argentina during the Falklands War, Afghanistan
since Soviet intervention and Iran, particularly during the US hostage
The summary of world broadcasts - based on the same information
as the newsfile but in greater detail - runs to 100,000 words a
day. It is published six days a week in four parts covering the
USSR; East Europe; the Far East; and the Middle East, Africa and
of copies are printed and posted daily or dispatched electronically
to subscribers all over the world including Nexis, the world's biggest
database in Dayton, Ohio.
To meet the constant increase in broadcasting output, a £16
million five-year modernisation plan began in 1985, underwritten
by the government. It included a major building programme, extensive
engineering improvements at Crowsley Park, and the computerisation
of the service.
Two of four 11-metre satellite dishes agreed under the plan have
been installed. These are steerable and are powerful enough to access
signals from satellite television transmissions.
'The trend is towards TV as the prime source of information,' says
Eric Bowman, the General Manager of BBC Monitoring. 'We see about
40 different channels, but at the moment we're only watching Soviet
and Libyan TV on a regular basis. We won't have our full TV set-up
That is when the main-frame computer, linked to an electronic storage
and distribution system with 180 visual display units, is expected
to come into service. 'It will simplify transmission and editing
and speed things up,' says Eric Bowman. 'In the meantime it's people
and typewriters as usual.'