BBC Monitoring: spotting fake news since the Second World War

Director, BBC Monitoring

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BBC Monitoring, Caversham park, 1945

BBC Monitoring is a specialist part of BBC News, part of the World Service group. We have experienced journalists and linguists who follow and track international media in foreign languages, in over 150 countries and about 100 languages.

We monitor that information, we report and analyse it, and we work on a subscription website basis. All our content is available to the BBC and to the UK Government and we also have commercial customers.

The service has been through a lot of changes in the last couple of years, and was delivered a savings target which we had to incorporate. We’ve changed the structure of the personnel and the organisation, we’ve changed the delivery platform, updated the technology, and we have new products, new customers and users.

We've moved from Caversham House, in Berkshire, which was an absolutely beautiful place to work, but it was expensive to run, and we were at a distance from a lot of our users in the BBC but also in the UK Government. Coming into Broadcasting House gives just that extra sense of being part of News.

It gives opportunities for collaboration, which already exist, but will be much easier. It gives opportunities for career development for our journalists who will be able to move about the organisation more easily, and it also brings us nearer to our other users in Government and the commercial world.

Also, it’s not just about the teams that live around Caversham as more than half our staff are in international offices.

BBC Monitoring was set up to counter propaganda from Nazi Germany in the war, explaining propaganda and spotting messaging in media. Verification - and then the reporting of stories where fake news is part of the media, is still part of what we do.

I’m pleased that the World Service is pulling together all its coverage of fake news. Monitoring is a central part of that, and we’re also developing a small team that is solely going to be dedicated to disinformation and the manipulation of messaging in the media in certain parts of the world.

We already work with all parts of News, for example our Iran team work very closely with the Persian service. During the Iranian elections last year some of our team were embedded with the Persian service to help them with their coverage.

We’re constantly following the media in over 150 countries, so when you’re talking about a big, complex, international story we’re able to broaden the lens and say ‘Well, here’s the view from this part of the world’, and ‘Here’s what this other country is saying.’

So it really helps that broader remit for the whole of News, in meeting impartiality and breadth of voice in our coverage. It’s also about generally spotting stories that are coming up and you can see emerging themes, something that’s bubbling under the surface as a story, and we can bring that into the editorial discussion.

We’re at the front of some of the changes that are coming up in terms of technology, because if we who follow the media aren’t able to keep up with changes in the media landscape – new platforms, new influencers, new trends – if we can’t monitor that output, then we will become irrelevant.

We’re involved in the trialling and testing of new technology that can help us scan that vast landscape and be able to access the sources that we need. We’re also trialling some of the newer technologies around machine-learned translation, so that you can take away some of the more basic work of our monitors and give them the chance to add the real human value.

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