Note: The author is a PhD researcher specialising in media archives at the University of Ulster. This piece has been edited following a complaint from the Irish Times.
Weeks after promising its arrival, the Irish Times’ online editor Hugh Linehan has finally published a blog post on the newspaper’s website seeking to explain its policy towards its online ‘archive’ in the wake of the Kate Fitzgerald affair.
A lengthy and comprehensive piece of work, it nonetheless fails to answer the key questions regarding the newspaper’s purging of Kate’s original article from its online archive on foot of complaints from her employers, the Communications Clinic.
Effectively, the Irish Times attempted to pass an altered piece off as the original and then resorted to the most totalitarian methods possible to wipe its existence from its archive. Indeed, there wasn’t even an explanation given as to what might have been in the blacked out space apart from the words ‘legal retraction’. This is sort of funny given that the newspaper’s subsequent apology to the Communications Clinic never precisely identified what the original article was and the alleged inaccuracies contain within it were. Incidentally, my old involuntary penpal Kevin O’Sullivan still hasn’t enlightened Kate’s family as to what these inaccuracies might be.
In any case, it’s becoming rapidly clear that whatever the Irish Times is selling on its website isn’t an archive but a selection of pieces from the paper published subject to any future whims of its editors or their lawyers. Despite Linehan’s claims, this is not what an archive is about. The basic definition of an archive is that it is a collection of original documents held in the custody of individuals whose basic aim is “to hand on to future generations the documents confided to [them]”.
This means that archivists view any alterations to an archive as unethical, not matter what the reason is. This is because archival material represents the raw material upon which historical narratives are built. For instance, Kate’s piece might be useful for future narratives regarding the portrayal of depression in the Irish media or the career of the Communications Clinic’s high-profile founder, Terry Prone.
In addition, the presence of alterations raises questions over the rest of the material held in an archive, particularly if the newspaper continues to resort to Stalinistic means to airbrush its history. How can anyone be certain of what each black box originally held or why it was removed? The precedent of blacking out material is quite dangerous because it could be used to disguise a multitude of sins. An embarrassing article about the brilliance of Sean FitzPatrick could easily be hidden behind a box. So could articles questioning the Taoiseach’s suitability for office. So could those referring to criminal convictions of prominent businesspeople. And so on.
Other media institutions tend to deal with problematic material in a more mature fashion even if limits to its accessibility might need to be imposed. The BBC is highly unlikely to ever repeat an episode of the Black and White Minstrel Show but owns up to its existence and even explains why it is not widely distributed. In addition, copies of the programme are made available to those researchers, authors and historians who are involved in producing narratives on the representation of race on British television.
The relationship between the news media and its audience involves a significant element of trust, particularly for newspapers such as the Irish Times which seek to morally elevate themselves above the rest of the pack. Linehan’s blog does nothing to address reader concerns regarding the apparent manipulation of the newspaper’s online archive and the ensuing loss of trust that this has created. I suspect that the only way of mending this trust is for the Irish Times to cease marketing its online services as an archive and to deal with issues such as those raised by the Kate Fitzgerald affair as other media institutions do – in as straightforward and honest a way as possible.