Thursday, May 01, 2014

Ethics for Oral Historians

McConville: kidnapped in front of her family, murdered.
The police questioning of Gerry Adams, president of Ireland's Sinn Fein, in connection with the loathsome 1972 murder of Jean McConville, should be raising anxiety among historians who have ever conducted an confidential oral history interview.

In 2001, scholars at Boston College undertook a series of historical interviews with participants in Ireland's Troubles of the 1970s.  [Update, June 5, 2014: the researchers were independent of Boston College; its library agreed to be the custodian of their recordings] Interviewees were given an unequivocal guarantee that the interviews would remain closed and confidential during their lifetimes, and as a result BC's "Belfast Project" assembled an irreplaceable archive of first person testimony about the history of that conflict.  All sides agree that without the guarantee of confidentiality, this evidence about what actually went on would never have come into existence.

But the researchers stored the tapes with their university.

Then the British government asked the American government to secure the tapes to assist British police in their inquiries. The American government required Boston College to hand over the tapes. Boston College complied -- against the desperate attempts of the scholars themselves to preserve the confidentiality upon which their scholarly project had been built.  Now the charges.

Chris Bray, an American historian who has been working for three years to highlight the threat to oral history scholarship these events constitute, can now say "I told you so."  He also points out that as part of the peace process in Ireland, the British government secretly promised permanent immunity from prosecution to almost 200 IRA leaders and members.  One IRA man facing trial because of the Belfast Project tapes recently had his case discharged by a British judge because he had been given that promise -- suggesting the subpoenas were issued in the service of a political campaign rather than a genuine judicial proceeding.

If you seek my views on the IRA and Gerry Adams, search this blog for either of those terms. I'm not an admirer or defender, let us say. But if you are an oral historian and you have ever promised anyone some measure of confidentiality in exchange for historical evidence, you should be thinking about where you have the tapes stored. You probably do not have confessions of murder, but even it is merely politically embarrassing material you acquired, you may have an issue.  Journalists routinely risk jail rather than give up their sources, and their publishers generally back them to the hilt.  If Boston College's example is anything to go on, don't expect the same from your university

(Image: The Guardian online)

Update May 3:  The New York Times reports on this story, noting Boston College's assertions that they pursued all available legal action to fight the subpoenas
The college spent three years in court “trying not to turn over this information,” said Jack Dunn, a spokesman for the college....

After a final court ruling in September 2013, the college was forced to turn over 11 documents, having successfully argued the number down from the 85 originally sought.
The researchers, however, are quoted as saying Boston College "sold out them and their work."
The story also notes that the Belfast Project researcher interviewed both IRA and Ulster Defence League veterans.
Update, May 8:  Instead of standing up for academic integrity, the leaders of Boston College's History Department take a firm stand ... on saying "It wasn't us, don't blame us, we're innocent bystanders." 
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