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The Art of Listening: BBC Monitoring and the Historical Significance of the Transatlantic Open Source Intelligence Relationship [VIDEO]

Posted on 07/21/2023

...the ability of monitoring to map history through the media: in different contexts – e.g. diplomatic, conflict and war, everyday activities, entertainment and arts – as well as at different registers of scale – local, national, transnational, global. And by extension, provide a new perspective on the human experience over the last eight decades.

Last month, Readex welcomed librarians to a special breakfast presentation at this year’s ALA Annual Conference in Chicago, IL. Dr. Alban Webb, lecturer of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex, captivated the audience in attendance with his talk on “The Art of Listening: BBC Monitoring and the Historical Significance of the Transatlantic Open Source Intelligence Relationship”

Dr. Webb—a noted historian of BBC World Service—gave a fascinating and informative overview of the history of open-source intelligence (OSINT) and the role of BBC Monitoring, highlighting perspectives these newly digitized archives represent for the study of the 20th century history.

View the entire presentation:

The role of monitoring radio broadcasts began at the start of WWII and continued throughout the 20th century. In his presentation, Dr. Webb shares examples of critical monitoring activities during World War II and the Cold War, including the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and the Hungarian Uprising in 1956, drawing attention to the broad scope and detailed tactics of monitoring services and the role that monitoring activities had in times of global crisis.

In the 1930s and 40s, radio was the new media of its day—it had “become a dominant mobilizing force of modern life.” The monitoring, translating and transcribing of international radio broadcasts began at the start of WWII. Radio is, by its very nature, ephemeral.  

More than just tuning in and transcribing content, monitoring is an act of intelligent listening—the art of listening—which uses the experience and skill of the monitor to identify salience, as well as deviations from the norm. They are radio waves made concrete, allowing us now to reintroduce the mediated context into our historical reconstructions of the past.

To address the far-reaching topic of OSINT, Dr. Webb started at the beginning days of BBC Monitoring and the secretive “Y Section.”

By the middle of WWII, BBC Monitoring was sharing more than 30,000 words in the form of “flash” messages per day with government departments via teleprinter—out of the more than 1.5 million words in 32 languages! Flash messages were those deemed as most urgent to be shared.

Dr. Webb also shared an example of the critical role of the monitoring of OSINT during the Cuban Missile crisis of 1962.

On October 28, 1962, with the real threat of nuclear war looming, Nikita Khrushchev announces via Radio Moscow—which was being monitored by the BBC—his intention to dismantle the Soviet missiles on Cuba. The “flash” message was shared with the British government and “because of the dovetailing of the UK/US global monitoring operation, the same message simultaneously landed with the CIA, the State Department and the White House”, thereby immediately de-escalating the global crisis.

This example clearly demonstrated to the audience that “at times of acute crisis, open-source intelligence collection and analysis can be viewed as an Emergency Service. And, Dr. Webb notes:

...that monitoring is often the 'first draft of history' – a narrative representation that becomes part of the official record, which has material significance in the affairs of state as well as in the memories of the societies they serve.

Dr. Webb concluded his thoroughly compelling presentation with these thoughts:

...I also think the documents are really useful in revealing something of the messiness of history: detailing the chaos of the moment, against the wider context in which things happen. They also offer an extraordinary level of detail and insight: adding richness, depth and perspective to our historical understanding.

To watch previous ALA breakfast presentations hosted by Readex, visit our Event Talks page.

Visit BBC Monitoring: Summary of World Broadcasts and FBIS for more information about these digital collections.

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