Tracing Global History through the BBC Monitoring Service

By Alex White

The birth of international radio in the 1920s was marked by a feeling of utopian hope. A new type of media had emerged which could travel huge distances instantly, link distant peoples and build global communities through the human voice. International broadcasting, however, would soon be set on a different trajectory. Radio’s ability to cross borders, to avoid censorship and poor infrastructure and to speak directly into the homes of its listeners made it a powerful tool for international propaganda. [1] This trend only accelerated as access to radio receivers increased through the twentieth century. By 1960, international broadcasters in Washington, London, Paris, Cairo, Moscow and Beijing were locked in a ‘war of words’ that spanned hundreds of languages across practically every nation on Earth.

The nature of radio poses an interesting challenge for historians. Unlike newspapers, pamphlets and books, it rarely leaves a physical trace. Archival files like scripts, policy documents and personnel files might speak to how international radio was organised, but they can only suggest what was actually broadcast. Recordings of international services, whilst invaluable, remain rare.

Global historians have one invaluable archive, however, in the records of the BBC Monitoring Service. Founded in 1939, just over a week before Britain’s entry into the Second World War, the service was designed to create transcripts and summaries of hostile broadcasts for use by the British Government and intelligence services. The British Foreign Office had been monitoring foreign broadcasts from 1935 to gather information on the Italian-Abyssinian War, expanding their operations in 1937 to monitor what Italian and German broadcasts in Arabic were saying to Britain’s colonial subjects. [2]

Under the BBC, however, monitoring acquired a new scale and direction. By August 1942, the BBC had its own dedicated listening facility in Worcestershire and was coordinating monitoring reports from Istanbul, New Delhi, Mauritius and the West Coast of the US. [3] Facing down austerity within the BBC, the Monitoring Service continued to expand its linguistic and technical reach throughout the decolonisation of the British Empire and the Cold War. This was aided by the Monitoring Service’s close working relationship with the CIA’s Foreign Broadcast Information Service, which allowed the two to economise and ‘split’ the regions of the world between those monitored by Britain and by the United States. [4] By 1964, the BBC provided routine coverage of some five hundred broadcasts across thirty-five languages. [5]

As part of their intelligence-gathering role, BBC Monitoring produced an enormous volume of translations and transcripts of broadcasts for use by the British and American governments. From August 1939, it produced a Daily Digest of World Broadcasts of up to 150,000 words, a further Monitoring Report of 4,000 words and occasional working papers on the development of propaganda. [6] From May 1947, it discontinued the Digest and produced a shorter Summary of World Broadcasts, a collection of transcripts and broadcast synopses for consumption by governments and the world press. While the original summaries were divided into parts, covering broadcasts from Eastern Europe, Central Europe and ‘The Rest of the World’ respectively, they quickly increased in scope. In April 1949, new parts were created for the Middle East, Far East and Western Europe. In 1959, these parts were reorganised again and broadcasts from Africa were monitored for the first time. [7]

These reports are available to the present day – the Digest in microfilm form at the BBC Written Archives Centre and the Summary in print at the same site, as well as at several research libraries across the UK. [8] Together, they provide an invaluable opportunity to study international communication and persuasion in the global past. Reports sometimes reveal understudied entanglements – tracing how Radio Beijing explained the Ku Klux Klan to South Asian audiences to undermine American claims of anti-racism; how the Voice of Israel offered weekly Quran readings to attract Muslim listeners and how Radio Moscow mocked Italian newspapers for the benefit of Somali communists. [9] At other times, they suggest a wider view of propaganda – one that recognises humour, music and letter-writing as vital tools for entertainment and persuasion.

Monitoring reports can also help to reconstruct global information systems, laying out which items were considered newsworthy at any point in time. Just one edition of the Summary of World Broadcasts I, covering Soviet broadcasts from the 3rd September 1959, contains reports of President Eisenhower’s visit to France and Britain’s support for West Germany; commentaries on anti-communism in Greece and the Sahara atomic tests; a historical lecture on colonialism and a spirited defence of the Shah of Iran. [10] If monitoring reports make one thing abundantly clear, it is that so many diverse trends and currents took place within short spans of time.

The Monitoring Service, however, was far from a neutral observer in this system. Its interests were influenced by the needs of the wider BBC and government bodies which funded the service, and this selectivity reflected in its archives. [11]From the outset, monitors were instructed to focus on lies, exaggerations and misinterpretations in enemy broadcasts which could improve the quality of British propaganda. [12] Light entertainment programmes were typically thought of as less important and given brief, undescriptive summaries unless they carried obvious political meaning. By translating monitored broadcasts into English, monitors were able to impose their own assumptions and interpretations onto existing texts. They were also able to redact articles in their entirety when they seemed ‘too libellous to produce’ in the Summary itself. [13]

The BBC’s own selectivity, however, can also be read against the grain. The targets of the Monitoring Service were determined by the British Government and their changing priorities over the twentieth century reveal much about the anxieties and interests of the British state. [14] As Robert Heinze’s work on Namibia makes clear, these biases could benefit small anti-colonial stations whose best chance at worldwide publicity was publication in the Summary of World Broadcasts. [15] In their translations, interpretations and editorial decisions, BBC monitoring reports contain implicit assumptions about how those monitors expected global communication and persuasion to work. If global historians are to understand the media systems of the past, it may be necessary to study not just what was being said but who was listening and why.

Author’s Bio: Alex White is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Cambridge and the recipient of a Trinity Hall Research Studentship. His work focuses on the reception of anti-colonial radio propaganda in British East Africa.


[1] Julian Hale, Radio Power: Propaganda and International Broadcasting (London: Elek, 1975), p. ix.

[2] Asa Briggs, The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, Volume II: The Golden Age of Wireless (London: Oxford University, 1965), p. 403.

[3] ‘Monitoring Service Development’, 29.8.1942, BBC Written Archives Centre [hereafter BBC WAC] E8/209/1.

[4] Memorandum from Director of Central Intelligence on Encomium for BBC Monitoring Service, 11.6.1979, CIA Electronic Reading Room [hereafter CIA ERR] CIA-RDP84-00868R000100020021-0.

[5] John Kewell, Guide to the Publications of the Monitoring Service of the British Broadcasting Corporation (High Wycombe: University Microfilms Limited, 1968), p. 7.

[6] Asa Briggs, The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, Volume III: The War of Words (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), pp. 189-90.

[7] Kewell, Publications, pp. 11-14.

[8] At time of writing, these include the British Library, the National Library of Scotland, Cambridge University Library and the UCL Main Library.

[9] ‘The USA’s Policy of Racial Discrimination Against Negroes’, 28.3.1960, BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, Second Series, Part III: The Far East 297/A5/1; ‘Israeli Radio Broadcasts for West Africa’, 7.1.1960, BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, Second Series, Part IV: Middle East and Africa 228/b/1; ‘Somalia: Italian Economic Exploitation and Coming Independence’, BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, Second Series, Part I: USSR [hereafter SWB SU] 229/A5/1.

[10] SWB SU/112.

[11] As of 1961, the Monitoring Service was funded 50% by the BBC, 30% by the Foreign Office and 20% by the Ministry of Defence. See Brewis to Morris, 29.5.1961, British National Archive, Dominion Office Files [hereafter DO] 191/142.

[12] ‘Some Notes on Monitoring’, BBC WAC E8/209/1; ‘Circular on the Monitoring Service’, ibid.

[13] Evans to Stewart, 2.2.1956, British National Archive, Foreign Office Files 371/119219.

[14] Whitechurch to Sheringham, 27.3.1962, DO 191/142/26.

[15] Robert Heinze, ‘Dialogue between absentees? Liberation radio engages its audiences, Namibia, 1978-1989’, Participations: Journal of Audience & Reception Studies 16.2 (2019), pp. 489-510 (p. 497).

Feature Image:  ‘Laurel, Maryland. Monitoring at the United States Federal Communications Commission listening post’ and has been made available in the public domain by the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division with the digital ID fsa 8d42303