There is a fascinating exchange (transcript below) on the BBC Radio 4 PM programme last night between the historian Anthony Beevor, and Open Democracy’s Anthony Barnett. It arose out Beevor’s rather feisty remarks at the Hay Festival in which he noted:
…with journalists wanting to write history on the hoof there is a tremendous pressure on people wanting to protect themselves and their reputations for the future; and they are weeding out information before it gets to the archive, or wiping the digital stuff, and I don’t think historians are going to be able to get at material in the same way in the future. Some things do need to remain secret and the more things are opened up immediately the more will be wiped early on.
The Barnett/Beevor barney (it’s coming) is one in which the division is in part one of perspective (the present versus, if you like, the long now), but also (although this goes largely uncommented upon by either protagonist) the substantive nature of evidence. What constitutes useful evidence and what a complete record?
For Beevor it is one in which the primary material is left intact until the editor’s knife is wielded by someone other than originator of the record, thirty years later, whilst Barnett argues that self edited records can be compensated for by clarifying interviews after the fact. Both view the change as inevitable.
Anthony Beevor: I think the pressure has been on journalists to come up with an instant history of a conflict, whether it is the Falklands, the first Iraq War, or certainly the second Iraq War. This has created unexpected side effects. In the past a Ministry or a Headquarters would have boxed up all their papers at the end, it would have been sent off to the archives and thirty years later, or something like that, there would have been a certain amount of weeding but historians would have had access.
What’s happen now of course is that partly with Freedom of Information pressures they are under and also with journalists under pressure to provide this sort of instant history, I think we are going to see more and more cases of Ministries and Headquarters doing their own weeding right at the start. And that’s very easy with digital information, emails and so forth, which account for much much more of the information available. But also they know that their own reputation and responsibility for what goes on will be that much more on the line and they don’t have the reassurance that they had in the past.
It’s a paradox. We would all like more freedom of information in a way, but it could actually be a double edged sword.
Anthony Barnett: Well, I don’t really recognise that account. I mean for example, Churchill started to publish his history of the Second World War using his own access to official papers in 1948. In fact it is quite a common feature for people who were involved in activities, especially great wars and conflicts, which they think are going to be historical, to be more or less writing them as that’s going on.
Freedom of Information certainly changes the way decisions are taken, hopefully it will change if for the better. And the idea that because it is digital it will be more easily weeded out, probably the case is the contrary, that if you’ve got paper records that were certainly redacted, they are much easier to know how many copies there are. Once you send an email, it is extremely difficult to remove an electronic record without leaving a shadow or a back up lurking somewhere that you can’t find.
Anthony Beever: I agree with Anthony Barnett that yes there certainly be a number of emails which of course will get out there and not be controlled. But what the historian needs of course is the complete record, and I fear forthe complete record in the future. This is really the big change.
Funny enough the Society of Authors amongst other institutions, were approached by the Government a few years ago saying what were our feelings about the thirty year rule. And I think very much my feeling was that inevitably one would prefer not to have a thirty year rule, but you knew if you didn’t have a thirty year rule, or something akin to it, then those responsible or in positions of power and worried about the way their decisions may be seen in the future, are that much more likely to do the elimination of difficult documents at the earlier stage rather than leaving it to civil servants weed thirty years later.
Anthony Barnett: First of all I think it is a myth that there is a complete record on paper of any decisions. It is always the case that way decisions are taken there is that tricky element where you think this is a little bit duplicitous, so you fudge it or you don’t put it on paper. Or you talk about it, or Mandarins talk about it ‘off record’ that has been a singular tradition.
So the idea that the complete record of what happen is always there on paper, that’s a myth. And also the fact that when you are looking at key decisions you can go back to people as say well “how this decision taken and how was that decision taken”. So when I read the Guardian account of what Anthony Beever was saying, he made this point about the importance of teaching of essays in school history which I very strongly agree with, but I think the thing about the past is that it is something you can argue over that there were always different options that were open.
Not simply something where is one record, one story, one narrative of what it means to be British etc.. And that openness is there both in terms of documents the way decisions were taken and then if you interview people about how they reflect upon the way decisions were made. Somehow there is something in the British culture which doesn’t like Freedom of Information and I think that is why I sort of suspect that behind this dislike is not a matter of protecting history but is of making sure that the narrative is kept under the control of ‘chaps’.
One thing worth noting is Beevor’s reluctance to get involved in contemporary events. His reasoning from Hay is roughly: “History is a question of cause and effect. You need to take events in order to make sense of them.”
It is almost impossible for journalists (or bloggers for that matter) to produce reliable history on the hoof. But to make a point that’s entirely subsidiary to the more epic quarrel between the ‘now’ and the ‘then’ above, this job of ‘taking events in order’ is something blogging technology allows us do already by virtue of the archive system.
But the critical shift is cultural, not technological.
In which case we might be better off using a little more of the historian’s discipline and narrative tool kit, and a little less of its more extravagant claims to definition? As for Freedom of Information, I suspect that that’s the genii out of that box, for good and for ill. Beevor’s concerns on that matter, are already themselves the subject of ‘history’.