By trying to hide or delete online transcripts/recordings of speeches, political parties are playing with our history – and not in a good way
I can understand why political parties from a tactical perspective would rather not have huge archives of speeches made by their politicians in a format easy for the general public to access. At the same time, parties forget Adrian Short’s rules of the internet when trying such underhand activities such trying to delete archives of stuff:
It all kicked off with this story in Computer Weekly about the Conservatives deleting their internet history. It was picked up by the mainstream press. Other parties have been accused since of similar. My view is that there is a much wider principle at stake – far beyond and far greater than the stereotypical ‘Yah-boo-public-school-ninety-nine-a-hundred’ exchanges that you see across the despatch boxes in the House of Commons.
A record of things that happened
I’m a historian by heart. The history books that I’ve ploughed through in life have contained quotes from speeches from historical figures throughout the ages, helping the authors of such history books weave the story of humanity into a narrative that explains to us how we got to where we are today. As more materials become available – in particular the regular releases from national archives, we get new interpretations of historical events that perhaps we were blind-sided to before. Who knows what the archives will show up when the secret documents from the run-up to the Iraq War of 2003 will reveal in terms of who said what? (Assuming that such meetings were minuted, of course).
What’s made things challenging for current generations of historians and archivists is the rapid switch from one medium of recording to another – paper to electronic. The problem is that records management systems, along with public administrative systems did not catch up. Look at your own personal hard drives – how well organised and structured are they? For many of you, you may not have given it much thought. But in large organisations, this is essential – especially when it comes to accountability. You only have to look at recent trials involving large corporations, and the impact that undeleted or improperly-filed electronic records, uncovered by prosecution counsels have had – in particular with banking trials.
Ministers thinking as politicians rather than as historical decision-makers
Perhaps there’s a sense of irony with those ministers who stand accused of not having their meetings minuted while at the same time wanting to go down in history as significant figures of their time. But historical records matter, even if at the time of their creation it feels like it does not. There were times in the civil service where I insisted that certain things were minuted or recorded as such for the record – for both history, corporate memory and accountability of decision-making. The reason being that there may come a point where someone will want to know why a certain decision was taken. History is full of these things. As far as I was concerned, it was none of my business why someone would want to know those things, but it was my duty to ensure that both the materials to explain what happened and why were recorded, leaving it to the archivists at The National Archives to decide what they wanted to do with the records in line with their systems and processes of examining, reviewing and disposing of the various records that were there.
What’s in the file labelled ‘miscellaneous’?
Just as with electronic records, there are lots of historical paper records at The National Archives. A decade ago before I joined the civil service, I went on a course on advanced historical research methods with what we now know as the Institute of Historical Research. We went on a tour of a number of important archives – including The National Archives – people who I would end up working with as a Freedom of Information officer in the civil service. One of the archivists there said they have tens of thousands of files that have not been touched since arrival, and that it would be wonderful for lots of people to be able to go through them in detail. In particular he said that some of the really interesting stuff turns up in historical files labelled ‘miscellaneous’. With electronic files, these can often be the ones where important but previous versions of documents get stored & forgotten about. When you’re working in a programme or policy that goes back many years, files in here can sometimes be goldmines for explaining what happened and when, and why certain decisions were taken.
Corporate memory and lessons learnt
With one policy and programme that I helped close during my final years in the civil service, I insisted on writing a short paper about the public administration lessons learned – which helped put some historical context to what we had all worked on – some of us for several years. From an historical and public policy perspective, I found this to be an incredibly useful exercise because my research into it explained why things happened the way they did, and gave us all an insight into the issues we were facing that we were otherwise not aware of. It also stayed with those of my former colleagues who stayed in the civil service after I left in terms of future policy development. What things do they need to look out for and when? What actions need to be taken by whom and when?
But politicians don’t like being told they are wrong – especially not in public
Perhaps that’s a reflection of the way we do mainstream politics in the UK. One side has to be right, the other side has to be wrong. Hence the ‘yah-boo-public-school-ninety-nine-a-hundred’ point. It reminded me about an article by Channel 4’s Cathy Newman (that I can’t find), where she cited that the Oxford/Cambridge Union style of doing politics had a negative impact on political processes because they generally do not allow for public cross-party collaboration/co-operation – foreign policy aside perhaps. It also reminded me of her article about mainstream politics being off-putting for women.
Perhaps then, it’s that Oxford/Cambridge Union mindset of not wanting to be proved wrong, or be told that what a politician said today is inconsistent with what they said five years ago, that made some within political parties want to delete internet archives of speeches. What happened to the mindset of your views and opinions changing when the evidence in front of you changes? I think it was JM Keynes who said that. Strange how we both studied economics and both became civil servants. In his case he founded an entire new school of economics and was at the Treaty of Versailles negotiations (slamming the peace treaty and resigning from The Treasury on principle as a result). I on the other hand wrote a short rant about economics long after graduating and unleashed a dragon fairy onto Twitter while in the civil service. I think he wins in terms of impact!
So…two points to finish on:
1) How institutions organise their files and archive their materials matters because it helps historians tell the story of what our generation did in these years to future generations
2) Politicians and political parties need to understand that what they say and what they do has a historical perspective. Trying to use technology to hide that perspective not only makes them look bad, it makes them look incredibly stupid too.