Friday, 1 April 2011

The Summaries of World Broadcasts: A Unique Archive

I am so happy I found this article that I published in History Today magazine in 1993. I had been using the Summaries of World Broadcasts, housed at the BBC Written Archive Centre, for my PhD research and discovered they are a wonderful source of information and insight for the contemporary historian. Given the importance of understanding the role of all source analysis in the construction of modern foreign policy, including public diplomacy, the SWBs continue to have significant relevance.

A unique archive

by Gary Rawnsley

As historians we are taught that secondary sources are useful for our research, but on their own are not enough, and so we must turn to first-hand accounts and primary sources to provide the substance of our investigations. For most this involves frequent visits to the Public Records Office at Kew, and this is usually considered sufficient. However there are other less well-known archives which few consult, but which can effectively complement the PRO. One example is the BBC Written Archives Centre at Caversham Park, near Reading. Contrary to popular academic belief this is of use not only to scholars of the BBC but to anyone engaged in researching the post-second World War period of international history, since the Written Archives Centre is the home of the Summaries of World Broadcasts (SWBs), a rich depository of historical information.

The SWBs are a daily digest of foreign radio broadcasts (in the age of satellite, television is now also included) as received and collated by the nearby BBC Monitoring Service. They are divided into four parts to cover the principal geographical areas of the world, and each is supplemented weekly by a detailed economic report. They are then sold to 'customers', ranging from government departments and university libraries to interested companies and individuals.

Despite being established at the beginning of the Second World War, the BBC Monitoring Service came of age during the Gulf crisis of 1990-91. Recognised as the single comprehensive source of news and intelligence on what was happening inside Iraq, it finally achieved the worldwide fame it has long deserved. As a result, scholars of both the history of that crisis, and the role of the media in it, are beginning to use the SWBs to supplement and augment their analyses. One notable example is Philip M. Taylor in War and the Media (Manchester University Press, 1992). Taylor represents a new generation of political and diplomatic historians who accept that communication has assumed a dominant role in the conduct of international relations and thus interprets the events that have shaped global history over the past fifty years from a new perspective and understanding.

The value of the SWBs is heightened by the fact that they provide the government and the Foreign Office with a regular flow of information, particularly when traditional channels have been severed. This does not, of course, negate the important work conducted by diplomatic personnel stationed overseas which the Monitoring Service complements. In crisis situations, however, diplomatic relations are often cut off and legations are closed. In such circumstances the Monitoring Service can be the only source of news and information which is derived from both international broadcasting stations (often transmitted in the knowledge that they will be monitored and reported) and domestic transmissions (providing more substantial information and less propaganda, since they are intended to be received by the home audience only).

In 1993 historians have turned their focus towards the events of thirty years ago as revealed by the newly-opened government records at Kew. Research now underway will no doubt spawn many excellent historical studies of, for example, the event that dominated 1962 -- the Cuban Missile Crisis -- which will disclose much of interest that has never before been known. But the crisis also provides excellent opportunity to demonstrate how the official record can be supplemented by the picture of events as treated by the media of the time. Indeed, the Missile Crisis is a dramatic testament to the diplomatic importance attached to both international radio communication and the Monitoring Service.

At the height of the crisis, Khrushchev sent two messages to President Kennedy offering a resolution. The first, ignored by Kennedy, was sent via traditional channels and thus experienced a long delay in its transmission from the US embassy in Moscow. The SWBs show how Khrushchev surmounted this problem by relaying his second message over Radio Moscow, guaranteeing that American demands would be complied with. He did this, fully aware that at such a critical moment when time was precious, this message would be monitored and reported long before official diplomatic communiques reached the White House. Kennedy replied using the same method and for the same reason. In this way international broadcasting had undertaken a significant role, in defusing the most threat to the Cold War status quo.

What is most interesting, however, is that through a detailed reading of the monitoring reports for the period, historians can trace the events of the crisis from a new angle. What Radio Moscow had to say about American allegations of Russian missiles in Cuba, for example, reveals the lengths to which the Soviet Union was prepared to go to deny their presence. Often more significant is what was not said, and what this indicated in terms of a Soviet political response. Then, when Moscow finally acknowledged the presence of the missiles in Cuba, the SWBs suggest how they would be justified.

Most frightening, of course, are the threats of nuclear confrontation that litter the broadcasts. Notwithstanding the problem of ascertaining the credibility of such threats, a young researcher examining the events from a post-Cold War vantage point can understand just how close the world came to witnessing nuclear confrontation. The crisis can then be examined in its international context. At a time when Sino-Soviet relations were beginning to deteriorate, how did China respond to the Cuban Missile Crisis? And how did Cuba itself react to being used as a mere pawn in a superpower game of global chess? The SWBs show how Khrushchev was hailed as a hero by some, a reckless adventurer by others, and a capitulator by Castro. Moreover, how aware were the rest of the world of just how close the superpowers came to unleashing nuclear war? How did the media reflect this concern? Analysing the SWBs goes some way towards providing answers to these and similar questions.

Unlike government documents housed in overseas archives the SWBs are written in the English language, which can be useful to the researcher. However, critics may be concerned as to the accuracy of the translations and the fact that, as many languages are so precise, with the very tone of a spoken phrase having its own unique nuance, such translations are not reliable. There is no doubt that the monitors who work at Caversham, and the compilers of the SWBs, are aware of this potential problem but are skilful enough to cope; many of the monitors are, after all, working in their first language.

Historical research, however, does not have to be confined to the events of thirty years ago. Through the SWBs we can begin to piece together the jigsaw of the momentous changes that have occurred in Eastern Europe; broadcasts received at Caversham signalled both the downfall of the Ceausescu regime in Romania and the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in the autumn of 1991. For the latter a reading of the SWBs provides not only a detailed chronological account of the coup itself, but also confirmation that it was destined to fail. This is suggested by the way the format of broadcasts from Radio Moscow changed over the period. For example, while the first twelve hours of the coup were inevitably occupied by decrees and statements issued by the so-called State Emergency Committee, and sombre material music evoking memories of the succession of deaths of Soviet leaders in the early 1980s, in the evening the news reader allowed herself to lapse from the usual strict and formal style adopted by presenters to announce at such a critical juncture in the nation's history: 'And that is the end of the news from the World Service of Radio Moscow on this beautiful summer's evening.' By the second day, reports had restored a level of balance, including coverage of the resistance by ordinary Russians to the coup, the actions and statements of Boris Yeltsin, and condemnation of the events by John Major and George Bush. This is most significant when one recalls that the media had theoretically been placed under the control of an 'especially created central body'.

The BBC Monitoring Service is currently collating volumes of invaluable information concerning the ongoing conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Moreover the fragmentary evidence made available by the SWBs as a series, allows the end of the Cold War and the shaping of the New World Order to be surveyed and, in turn, suggests where our political focus may shift in the near future. The basis for this speculation would not be simply prediction, but an academic interpretation and analysis of the world's media; they are the first to report events and situations, often without knowledge of their import or significance. The historians of the future will no doubt benefit from the progress made today towards such ends.

It is time then that more historians began to delve into this unique source of information. It is no less valuable than more traditional sources, and offers exciting new research possibilities. In isolation the Summaries of World Broadcasts present an opportunity to study individual situations from the viewpoints of the main participants and a chance to see how the media reflects the political responses to world events. Together the Summaries are an indication of the growing importance attached to the media in the political life of the planet.

1 comment:

  1. I am a third year BA History at the University of Leeds, where you teach. In my dissertation I used SWBs to analyse whether local media representation of famines in the Horn of Africa were accurate or misrepresentation. They were extremely useful as a source in my work and I am glad they are beginning to get the recognition across academia. Great article.