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Thursday, 18 October, 2001, 09:24 GMT 10:24 UK
Keeping a close ear on Afghanistan
The monitoring unit is based at Caversham Park
In a quiet old manor house by the Thames, hundreds of linguists listen in on the world's media. It is here that we can tune in to what the Afghan people are hearing, writes BBC News Online's Megan Lane.

For an organisation whose business is language, the BBC's global media monitoring centre at Caversham Park in Berkshire is a very quiet place.

A monitor translates a news bulletin
That's because most of the 400-strong workforce are busy listening in to the global media.

Their task is to select and translate information from radio, television, news agencies, websites and newspapers from 150 countries in more than 100 languages.

The translators - or monitors as they are known - are a mix of Britons and foreign nationals. All must be fluent in English and at least one other language, and well-versed in the culture of the region they are monitoring.

It is in times such as this that their work provides an invaluable and objective insight into the workings of war.

Closed nation

Afghanistan under the Taleban is a notoriously closed country at the best of times - and now, with the so-called war on terror underway, western journalists can but stand on the borders.

Valuable sources
Al-Jazeera satellite TV channel
Voice of Mujahid, a web-radio run by the opposition Northern Alliance
Voice of Iran radio
Afghan press agencies
Knowing what the Taleban are saying to their people is considered so vital that the Afghan monitors have been pulled off all other duties to work around the clock.

Some came to the UK years ago, after the Russians invaded Afghanistan. Others are more recent arrivals from our units in central Asia.

And it was these monitors who first picked up a new pro-American radio station aimed at the people of Afghanistan, which broadcasts on frequencies cleared when the Taleban's main radio station was bombed last week.

The station, broadcast from a fleet of specially-adapted US military aircraft, is believed to be part of the US military's "PsyOps" (psychological operations) propaganda campaign.

"We knew from previous conflicts that there would be a psychological operations radio coming - and low and behold, it appeared on Sunday," says an editor in the broadcasting research unit.

'Here to help'

The station is aired in Dari and Pashto - the two main languages in Afghanistan - and mixes announcements read in an emotionless tone with lively Afghan music.

Bombs, food aid and propaganda - a US leaflet dropped on Afghanistan
The first broadcast was addressed to "the noble people of Afghanistan" and warned them to stay away from roads and bridges.

"We have not come here to harm you," the announcer said. "We have come to arrest Osama Bin Laden, al-Qaeda and those who support him."

Although the monitors report broadcasts such as this and Osama Bin Laden's videotaped messages "straight from the horse's mouth", without comment or spin, they do provide additional information on tone and delivery.

For example, monitors noted that the US broadcasts used music usually played at weddings or other celebrations, in appropriate during a bombing campaign.

And during World War II, when Caversham Park first started tuning in to the world, the traitor Lord Haw Haw (real name William Joyce) was said to "sound drunk" during his last broadcast for Nazi radio.

Dishing up the news
The listed 18th Century home to this hive of monitoring activity previously housed a Catholic boarding school. Today, its lush grounds bristle with hi-tech satellite dishes.

The school was requisitioned at the start of WWII, initially earmarked to be a hospital but soon taken over by the monitoring unit.

The Orangery has been converted into a listening room, while a former billiards room now bursts with banks of TVs, computers and monitoring equipment.

The two main listening rooms are divided into sections according to regions and duties - the Afghan team, for instance, backs on to the radio engineers.

Hive of quiet activity: The listening room at Caversham
But the BBC does not listen in to the world alone - it shares monitoring duties with its US equivalent, the Foreign Broadcast Information Service.

For BBC News Online, the unit provides country profiles, media reviews and translations of newsworthy clips such as Osama Bin Laden's videotaped messages and rallying calls from the Taleban.

The battles of this war may be being fought in the far-off mountains of Afghanistan, but vital information is being gathered in suburban Reading.

Key stories


War view



See also:

16 Oct 01 | Media reports
Pro-US radio launched for Afghanistan
16 Oct 01 | Americas
The US war of minds
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