Silence in the archive

This is the text of a paper I gave on the final day of the 2015 ARA Conference, 28 August, in Dublin. It generated some discussion both at the event and afterwards on twitter and I thought it might be helpful to upload it here. You’ll notice that it draws heavily on two of my previous posts.

Good morning.

I want to first say what an honour it is to be speaking to you today. I’m a latecomer to the archives profession, having made a move 3 years ago from policy and governance work in central government, and this is the first time I’ve spoken at an archives and records management professional gathering of any kind. It’s a particular pleasure to be speaking alongside Mike Anson, who has been a great help in welcoming me into the business records community. I would also like to say a quick thank you to the faculty on the UCL archives and records management MA course, under whom I studied in 2012-13, especially Elizabeth Shepherd and Jenny Bunn, who both encouraged me to get involved in professional discussion.

I have two further very quick items of housekeeping before I get into the substance of my session:

First, I’m going to be discussing two cases where archive questions have become matters of public policy interest. I want to be absolutely clear before I start that no criticism is intended of anyone working in the sectors I talk about. I’m especially conscious that, from the outside, I may not know the full intricacies of the case.

Second, for today’s purposes I am speaking in a personal capacity. I am employed as a professional archivist but these are very definitely my own views and not necessarily those of my employer.

I want to talk today about what happens when questions, in which records managers and archivists have legitimate professional expertise, emerge into public debate and media scrutiny. I’m going to look at two examples where that has happened, and talk about what conclusions we can draw about our professional presence in the public sphere.

My principal contention is this:

We are not making our professional voices heard in public – and we should do.

Since I very much hope this will prompt discussion, I’m going to try not to fill all my allotted time with me speaking.

The first example I want to talk about is the issue of the publication of clinical trials, an issue championed by Dr Ben Goldacre and the All Trials campaign.

The Randomised Clinical Trial, as reported in medical journals like the Lancet, the British Medical Journal and so on, is our best tool for understanding the safety and efficacy of a given drug. Trials are how a drug gets approved and how bodies like NICE decide whether they will fund its use in the NHS.

The problem here is that there is no obligation on pharmaceutical companies to publish all the trials they carry out, and it appears that they don’t do so. Trials that suggest that a new drug is safe, effective and better than what’s already on the market are, it seems, far more likely to be submitted for publication than those that don’t. And worse still, the existence of the unpublished trials is not even disclosed. The AllTrials campaign is calling for change such that ‘all trials past and present should be registered, and the full methods and the results reported.’

The reference to past trials is an important one. As Goldacre points out, if all trials from now on were registered and published, this would not solve the problem that we don’t have a true picture of the effectiveness of all the drugs currently on the market – these were trialled back in the eighties, nineties or noughties, and many of these trials are missing.

And so we get to archives and records management.

Goldacre says, that not only are records of trials only published selectively, but with misleading accounts of their authorship and the circumstances of their creation. In at least one case, a drug company has declined to make trial results available to independent researchers specifically because it had objections to their perceived line of inquiry. This was Roche, which in 2010 declined to provide Tamiflu trial records to researchers from the not for profit Cochrane Collaboration:

Roche stated that ‘Certain members of Cochrane Group involved are unlikely to approach the review with the independence that is both necessary and justified.’

In another case researchers from Cochrane wanted some trials records relating to an anti-depressant from the Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, and it turned out that these has been destroyed in line with the Agency’s retention policy, having not been deemed to be of particular scientific, historical or political interest notwithstanding that another anti-depressant of the same type, paroxetine had previously been involved in the largest investigation the MHRA has ever conducted, of any kind – including the consideration of whether criminal charges against Glaxo Smithkline were appropriate.

Does any of this sound worrying from an archivist’s or a records manager’s perspective? I may only be recently qualified but these sound to me mightily like the issues of provenance, context, reliability, accuracy, completeness, retention, access and reuse that are such an important part of our professional values.

Now, I do not wish to talk about the dilemmas faced by individual records managers and archivists in the pharmaceutical sector. As we know, an individual archivist or records manager’s power to improve matters is likely to be limited. Recordkeepers, especially in large corporate bodies, are very often not the ultimate decision-makers on what is retained and what is destroyed, what is disclosed and what is kept private. Very often, their ability to influence these matters may be limited to ensuring that their bosses have been informed of principles that may be in play and what best practice is. Employees of course have a contractual duty to their employer. Moreover, Ben Goldacre notes that the practices he is criticising in the industry have been standard for decades and were not until recently recognised as anything wrong or problematic.

Rather, I want to look at the broader questions for the profession. This issue of undisclosed clinical trials is a major one, of undoubted importance to society at large. When the book was launched in 2012, it got significant media coverage and questions were asked in the House of Commons and in Select Committees; and with the subsequent launch of the AllTrials campaign, it has remained, periodically, in the public eye. Just in the last couple of months it was again in the news as various new organisations, including institutional investors with shareholdings in the pharmaceutical industry worth billions, signed up to the campaign. It is unequivocally about records, both current and historical, and it certainly relates to core archival principles.

Why, then have we not seen any archivists or RM professionals commenting about it?
Why have archivists and RM professionals not been prominent in the ensuing debate?
Why was our profile so low that it did not even occur to Ben Goldacre and AllTrials to choose our profession as a target for lobbying?
And most of all why have we chosen, collectively, through our professional bodies, in the UK and elsewhere, to be silent on the issue?
Might it be appropriate for, say, the IRMS or the ARA to make an explicit statement of what they consider to be good, or best practice in this area?

I apologise profusely if there have been numerous public comments and interventions, but I have only seen a very few of them.

My second example is that of the saga of Mrs Blurt.

In Autumn 2011, Chris Cook of the Financial Times broke a story concerning the then Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove and his Special Advisors Dominic Cummings and Henry de Zoete. Cook had received a cache of leaked emails from a source at DfE that originated from these three and others. In one of these, from Cummings, in February of 2011 he stated that:

“i will not answer any further e-mails to my official DfE account …i will only answer things that come from gmail accounts from people who i know who they are. i suggest that you do the same in general but thats obv up to you guys – i can explain in person the reason for this … [sic]”

Subsequent articles by Cook and others made plain that Cummings’ motivation appeared to be a number of interrelated beliefs.

First, that communications between a Minister and his Special Advisors were inherently ‘party political’ and not part of the public record.
Second that civil servants were not entitled to oversight of such communications.
Third, that emails sent and received from personal email accounts by DfE employees were not ‘held’ by the Department and so were not within scope of the Freedom of Information Act.

It became apparent that Gove, Cummings and de Zoete had all been making use of private email accounts – notably a gmail account under the name ‘mrsblurt’, registered in the name of Gove’s wife. For over a year, DfE held to the line that it did not hold any such emails, before the Information Commissioner firmly ruled against this interpretation of the Act and it became absolutely clear that DfE’s planned appeal to the Information Tribunal was doomed to failure. In a related matter it was established that Cummings and de Zoete had deleted a number of emails to and from journalists from their departmental accounts (as opposed to their private accounts), without any appraisal by Departmental Records Officers or the creation of a deletion log.

From our perspective as recordkeepers, what was most striking about this episode was that all discussion of the alleged wrongdoing and of the issues raised was couched in terms of transparency and the Freedom of Information Act, whereas the creation of an accurate and complete public record for posterity, and compliance with the Public Records Acts, was also at stake.

The Information Commissioner was open about the dim view he took of Gove, Cummings and de Zoete’s actions. But there was, so far as I have been able to discover, no public intervention from either TNA or the ARA, noting the implications for the public record of discussions on policy formulation being conducted outside the reach of departmental records management systems, with no prospect of the records of discussion being captured, appraised and considered for eventual transfer to the National Archives. While the affair gained great attention in the media and the ‘blogosphere’ there appeared to be relatively few comments from the archives community.

This seems to me odd, to say the least.

As Alistair Tough says: “The primary role of archivists in a plural democracy should be to secure the record for the future…we should re-consider the notion that archivists need to protect the record from political pressure. A more pressing need is for political pressure to be applied at the highest level, to ensure that there is a record to protect.”

If the record of a public policy transaction is never created, or is destroyed soon after creation; and if this happens repeatedly, then ultimately the archive ceases to be anything like comprehensive.

If this is allowed to happen, then it will have done so in an environment where there is public records legislation, a well-funded and – broadly speaking – politically independent National Archives and a lively scholarship on archival matters.

Jenkinson wrote explicitly of the primary duty of archivists being the defence of the record. If this situation is being allowed to develop, is the archives profession not failing in that duty? If the issue is something that is outside the immediate control of the archives profession itself, is it perhaps also the case that archivists are not engaging sufficiently with wider political discourse and not making their voices heard in civil society?

These are two examples, but there are many others:

  • the realisation of quite how many records relating to colonial and diplomatic history had been held back at Hanslope Park and not disclosed.
  • the EU’s decision to create the concept of the ‘right to be forgotten’ in web searches.
  • the sharing, without adequate consultation of aggregated patient records with, for example, the actuarial profession through the Department of Health’s Care Data programme

Viewed by the outsider, a failure to engage in these areas could arguably mean that, as professionals we are collectively breaching our own professionals ethics: through acts of omission we are not protecting the record or promoting its accessibility.

I’m aware that that’s a desperately unfair accusations! There are good reasons why we don’t do this.

It may be that in some or all of those cases, there has been engagement, lobbying and reminders of good practice – but that it has gone on in private. There are advantages and disadvantages of tackling difficult issues in public rather than more diplomatically dealing with them behind closed doors. Something we can perhaps usefully touch on in discussion is the relative merits of these approaches.

There are other legitimate reasons:

As individuals, we have limited time and many other battles – closer to home – to fight.
As a profession, we are small – the ARA only has a small public affairs function and, again, they must pick their battles carefully.
We are, generally, employees – with obligations to our employers, and
These issues are difficult. Very few of them are black and white.

But if we, as the professions which claim to have knowledge and expertise this field, don’t speak up, who is going to?

The Canadian archives and library blogger Myron Groover wrote a piece that was selected last year as one of the Cardigan Continuum’s most thought-provoking texts. I’d like to quote him at some length. He said that we should “be less willing to shy from the challenging aspects of our work at the level of policy and advocacy – our voices are desperately needed. We no longer have the luxury of silence, and whispering position statements is simply not enough. Hesitating to engage with the emerging issues around information policy is not enough. Standing on the sidelines – whether out of ignorance or out of a misguided desire for self-preservation in the face of a difficult funding climate – is most emphatically not enough.”

I don’t offer any easy answers. My reason for suggesting this topic for discussion at Conference was because I haven’t heard it discussed elsewhere. And I’m very keen to hear your views!

Thankyou very much.

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