'Spending Our Cash Recklessly On A Totally Empty System': 6 years and £8.3m later, there's still no sign BBC's foreign monitoring technology Socrates

Revolutionary computer system it promised to revitalise the text-based current system with artificial intelligence and the means to translate myriad languages from audio into written English

Media Editor

The BBC called it "Socrates" but, unlike the great Athenian philosopher, the crucial technology system at the corporation’s global nerve centre has not added much to the sum of knowledge – only an enormous bill for the public.

Journalists at the ornate Caversham Park building in Berkshire, from where the BBC has monitored foreign media broadcasts for more than 70 years, are aghast at the profligacy of a project that has cost £8.3m but is not operational.

The 370-strong BBC Monitoring division, which analyses and translates into English radio and television bulletins in around 100 foreign languages, is having to monitor the world’s media with what one member of the team described as “antiquated and temperamental equipment that belongs in a museum”.

Socrates was meant to change that. A revolutionary computer system from the Cambridge-company Autonomy, it promised to revitalise the text-based Caversham system with artificial intelligence and the means to translate myriad languages from audio into written English. So sophisticated was this Technology Refresh Project that it was given a lofty acronym based on its anticipated benefits. Specialised, Open source, Collection, Reversioning, Archiving, Tailored, Export, System - Socrates!

It was supposed to be operational in 2009 but, six years after it was commissioned and despite an expenditure of £8,346,847 (a figure released by the BBC in response to a Freedom of Information request), BBC Monitoring is still using its old text system.

Staff are especially angry because the computer spending has coincided with a £3m cut in the department’s budget and the loss of at least 60 posts. One said the computer system’s name was better reflected by the words “spending our cash recklessly on a totally empty system”. However, it is understood that not all the £8.3m costs will be borne by the BBC.

During the long process of trying to get Socrates operational it was the subject of numerous authorisation meetings attended by the BBC’s most senior figures including the former Director General Mark Thompson, the current acting DG Tim Davie, when he was Director of Audio & Music, and the former Director of News Helen Boaden, now Director of Radio.

BBC Monitoring’s position is delicate because from the financial year 2013-2014 it must be funded by the BBC, having previously received subscriptions from various parties including the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the BBC World Service. It is seeking to grow its base of commercial customers by offering a specialist information service of “media trend analyses” and “country profiles”, and claims an “understanding around local nuances” and “on the ground insight”. An “advanced technology infrastructure” is also part of the pitch. 

Among its notable successes was its exposure of Iranian TV’s distortion by deliberate mistranslation of speeches given by Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi and by the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in order to remove criticisms of the Iranian regime last year.

BBC Monitoring’s expertise in Ethiopia enabled it to be ahead of other news organisations in detecting the significance of the absence from local media of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who was in bad health and died last August. It is also vigilant in tracking incidents of satellite jamming, which has been a recent problem in countries such as Syria and Iran.

But staff are having to work without the new technology they were promised. For Autonomy, which was bought by Hewlett Packard in 2011, the flawed project is a further embarrassment after the recent public spat between the American company and Autonomy’s former boss Mike Lynch. HP has accused Lynch of inflating the company’s revenues, which he denies.

In a statement tonight, it was confirmed that the Socrates project had ended. “The BBC and Autonomy have reached an amicable settlement to conclude the 2008 contract to provide an IT system to the BBC.”

In FoI responses, the BBC claimed that the Socrates project had delivered numerous benefits, including  a “source data repository” and a software platform to “facilitate future developments”.

Socrates himself was, of course, put to death in 399 BC. The BBC computer system that took its name from him may have suffered the same fate.

The story of BBC Monitoring Service

The BBC Monitoring Service was set up in 1939 by the Government with the backing of the Pentagon to monitor the broadcasts of enemy countries during the Second World War. It provided information to both the BBC News division and the Government’s Ministry of Information.

It originated in a collection of wooden huts near Evesham, but moved in 1943 to its present home, Caversham Park, a 160-year old Italian baroque style stately home on the outskirts of Reading. In the modern era it is known simply as BBC Monitoring and has become a key tool in decoding the propaganda of dictators and analysing changing political and social conditions in nations rarely covered by global news organisations. Typically its antennae might be picking up more than 30 television broadcasts and 100 international radio networks at the same time. It has numerous overseas offices in such regions as the Caucasus and the Middle East.

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
Voices
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Sport
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
sport
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Data Scientist

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A data analytics are currently looking t...

Web / Digital Analyst - SiteCatalyst or Google Analytics

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading publisher in...

Campaign Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A leading marketing agency is currently ...

BI Analyst

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A leading marketing agency in Central Lo...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little