Does ‘FOI’ privilege the contingency of ‘now’ over a ‘complete record’ in the future?

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’.

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  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Its coincidence that I read this just a few minutes after posting something on the “Collusion thread”.
    My discipline is History. Its something that I understand. The lowest History graduate leaving QUB next month will have the Vice Chancellors standard ringing endorsement of the History in their ears. They will…..he tells them have the skills to undrstand complex arguments in history and politics and have that capacity to filter.
    While the Historians obsession is “sources” and the quality of the sources……Id hold that what somebody says about him/her self in an autiobography is of less value than a diary with a 50 year embargo. Id argue that a biography written by a sychophant or enemy is at least questionable.
    The truth is that sources have always been destroyed the Four Courts for example) or even simply non-existent.
    Writing a “history” of Alexander the Great is self evidently difficult in terms of sources.
    In comparative terms there is less source material on Horatio Nelson than there is on Nelson McCausland. What a field day the Irish historian in 2110 will have……indeed I say quite seriously that Slugger O’Toole might hold a wealth of interest for a future PhD student although the research material is more likely to be about Blogging or political anoraks than hard History.
    While lack of sources is a potential problem for a Historian s is the the surplus of “Sources”.
    How many words have been written this week about David Laws, in historic terms (so far) no more worhy than a historic footnote for the shortness of his ministerial career.
    In histori terms not relevant until he makes a Churchillian comeback.
    The problem is not so much Journalists as the quality of Journalists. I make no apology for saying 24 Hour News is as not a recommendation of Quality. Nor is the Bloggerati. For every Guido Fawkes and Iain Dale……..there is a no mark like me.
    And conventional Journalism is in decline.
    And while a few might see a marketing opportunity arising for the best (or most specialised or controversial), most people see it as a continuing spiral downwards.
    In that context…..bbevors real point is surely that Journalism itself can no longer be trusted. There are no Alistair Cooks. No 1930s style “Scoop”. No 1970s Woodward/Bernstein.
    Journalism cannot be trusted to provide sources that would interest the future Historian. They are too full of their own importance. Too close (the lobby) to the people they seek to scrutinise.
    Ive lost count of the number of BBC/ITN/Sky hacks who wave their Blackberrys at the screen……”nananana I know more than you ……Ive got contacts”……oblivious to the fact that the mutual admiration society actually inhibits information rather than help it flow.
    Is it really THAT important that we can “follow” some minor BBC hack on Tweeting or that Mark Devenport and Ken Reid (journalists of substance) havea Blog.
    Fortunately Historians still wrote History when there was little or no Journalism. History can surely survive Bad Journalism.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Er it looks like I wrote a very long post on Freedom of Information……without actually mentioning Freedom of Information. Which I suppose is an indication of how useless it is for both Journalist and Historian……or the ordinary Punter.
    As every Sir Humphrey knows….and every Junior Minister knows …they have adapted to an era where information might become known ……therefore “not in public interest” or simply dont put it on the record.
    How this helps the Journalist, I dont know.
    It does not surely help future Historians.
    No excuse for good old fashioned digging around for the History Profession or Journalist Craft……why should either expect it delivered for them.

  • In that recent thread about David Laws, I pointed to Chris Dillow’s point about how “it is better to be a prissy, priggish follower of rules than a man of any other virtues – which is a perfect recipe for mediocrity.”

    Surely the demands for more transparent policymaking will have the same effect? We can all think of instances where policymakers have had to quietly do the right thing today and worry about how they can justify individual decisions at a later date once a wider approach to policymaking has been vindicated.

    It also raises the question of who the beneficiaries of this transparency are. People who work long hours, have heavy personal responsibilities and little self-confidence in their own political advocacy aren’t going to be pouncing on the running commentary that policymakers feel that they have to give to the public. Disruption (a good thing in some cases) inevitably comes from sections of society that have the time and the resources to provide it.

    It has the potential to bring in an age of more partial and less effective policymaking. I’d suggest that age is here already.