The Irish Times and archival censorship

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.

Kate Fitzgerald's article as blacked out on the Irish Times web archive

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.

Not coming to a TV near you: The Black and White Minstrel Show. (c) BBC

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.

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4 Responses to The Irish Times and archival censorship

  1. Hugh Linehan says:

    You claim to be responding to my blog post earlier today, in which I wrote:
    ‘In the case of Kate Fitzgerald’s anonymous article of September 9th, following legal advice we were asked to edit it on the afternoon of Monday, November 28th. The original amendment line in the irishtimes.com archive read: ‘’This is an edited version of an Irish Times article originally published on September 9th, 20111″. Following complaints from some users, we re-wrote the line on Wednesday morning to read: “This article was originally published on September 9th in The Irish Times. It was re-edited on November 28th following legal advice.” ‘
    You interpret this as:
    “the newspaper initially secretly edited its online version of Kate’s piece to remove anything that could be viewed as being remotely critical of the Communications Clinic. Once this was noticed by some readers, it then put a disclaimer at the bottom of the piece highlighting the fact that it had been edited.”
    Do you stand over this as an accurate representation of what I wrote?

  2. Ken Griffin says:

    The paragraph you refer to is not presented as an interpretation of your blog but my opinion based upon my own understanding of what transpired.

    It is somewhat ironic that you raise queries about the accuracy of my blog given the inaccuracies that you have perpetrated about my friend and her associates, including false allegations in your apology that she alleged that she had stated that she had been let down by her friends.

    Anyway, while you are suddenly feeling so chatty why don’t you explain to Kate’s family about the apparent inaccuracies in her piece?

  3. finoreilly says:

    Ken,
    This is hardly a precedent. I use a service in the course of my work called ClipShare, from the Newspaper Licensing Agency. As a student of media archives, I’m sure you’re familiar with it.
    It regularly displays articles that have been redacted for legal reasons.
    As for media researchers looking for a historical record, the Irish Times would still exist in paper form.
    The notion that publications maintain their archives “to hand on to future generations” is also questionable – James Murdoch fiercely criticised the British Library for attempting to digitise the London Times for its archive and Vogue magazine has just started charging £1,000 a year for access to its digital back issues.

  4. Ken Griffin says:

    The notion that an archive is preserved for future generations derives from one of the more popular academic definition of what an archive is. It has its flaws but I have used it as it was the most accessible and practical definition – i.e. one I could use without having to give a long preamble referring to various philosophical and theoretical debates. I have issues with the definition myself.

    I have no issue with the monetising of archive content but I have an issue with material being marketed as an archive when it clearly isn’t.

    My comments about the precedent derive from comments within Hugh Linehan’s original blog which suggested that the Irish Times was considering pulling the archive from online reference services which would be extremely problematic given their use within academia.

    You are right in terms of the question of existence – the paper version would exist in the National Library but institutions such as that are increasingly encouraging users to access digitised versions of the content, some of which are supplied by the publishers themselves.

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