The Entanglement of Oral History Ethics

Recording Crime logo - image of police officer writing in notebook and old-fashioned dymo-style lettering

It’s a dull Saturday morning and I’m sitting at my desk with my essential big mug of tea and toast with marmite. I’m looking out of the window and over Exeter towards the folly on Haldon Hill and contemplating Ethics because yesterday I finally submitted my 19 page Human Research Ethics Committee (HREC) Proforma, along with 8 sets of attachments and now I wait for their response.   Why as a history student I need to go through the lengthy ethical rePhoto of mug of tea and toastview process is simply because as part of my PhD research around the material culture of police records and archives and the laying down of policing history, I will be undertaking oral history interviews with retired police officers. And for academic research, oral history sits at the intersection between the past and the present, between dead and living people and this living human connection pushes it, not entirely comfortably from the humanities into the social sciences – I say not entirely comfortably because I have found strategies for dealing with research outputs can be quite different between the two disciplines.

There have been a number of oral history projects with retired police officers: Barbara Weinberger’s large scale, funded project which is now archived with the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image Catalogue is probably the best known and the Metropolitan Police have an excellent ongoing oral history project; so I’m not setting a precedent here. However, my oral history topic is more challenging than many in that one of my aims will be to explore the theory that police staff may act as “gatekeepers of information” where institutional pride and professional souvenir keeping are believed to play an important but undocumented role in the preservation of police records. It will be looking for answers to questions (though not necessarily asking the questions direct) around working practices and there is a possible, though small, risk of disclosure of illicit practices. I won’t be interviewing the “bobby on the beat”; my subjects will be savvy ex-senior officers and members of CID who worked with case files; it could be viewed as the gathering of elite oral histories and, as such, they will have a clear sense of what organisational narratives they wish to tell. They will also be cautious at best, and potentially uncomfortable with the long-term archiving of their information and access to it (in a way illustrating the very questions that I wish to explore – the relationship between the police and their information).

An early dilemma was whether I would potentially be dealing with admissions of illegal behaviour and if I was, how to respond to these before or during the interview. A criminologists I contacted advised: “I always tell interviewees that admissions of illegal behaviour essentially lead to the removal of their anonymity. We are meant to then notify relevant authorities if illegal behaviour is admitted to” and he pointed me in the direction of the Society of Criminologists ethics guidelines: “offers of confidentiality may sometimes be overridden by law: researchers should therefore consider the circumstances in which they might be required to divulge information to legal or other authorities, and make such circumstances clear to participants when seeking their informed consent” (section 4 iv). Although I still have no answer to the complex retrospective legal conundrum of whether, during the 1960s to 1980s, taking police files home was a disciplinary or a criminal offence, to cover all eventualities it seems wise that my increasingly long Interview Consent Form should include a clause on the potential disclosure of criminal activity.  

Photograph of a blank official secrets act formWhilst struggling to unpick this particular ethical knot I then found myself considering whether retired police officers may breach the Official Secrets Act 1989 by possibly admitting to such practices and should this even concern me? The 1989 Act creates offences connected with the unauthorised disclosure of information in six specified categories by Government employees which are: security and intelligence; defence; international relations; information which might lead to the commission of crime; foreign confidences and the special investigation powers under the Interception of Communications Act 1985 and the Security Services Act 1989. However, a Crown Servant (e.g. civil servants, government ministers, members of the armed forces or police) is only guilty of an offence if “they make an unlawful disclosure in one of the six categories which is deemed damaging” (from: House of Commons Library: The Official Secrets Acts and Official Secrecy) and so-called “damage tests” essentially require the Attorney General to decide whether a disclosure is deemed damaging, and to bring a prosecution under the Act. The category which is specifically relevant for police officers is “information which might lead to the commission of crime” and this goes on to state: “A criminal offence will occur if the information is disclosed without legal authority and the following occurs: the commission of an offence; the facilitation of an escape from legal custody or prejudices the safe keeping of people in legal custody; the limiting of prevention or detecting of offences or the apprehension or prosecution of suspected offenders”.   Here then, I at least feel reasonably confident, that as the project will be dealing retrospectively with actions that happened 30 to 50 years ago, and the highly unlikely event that admitting to such acts would breach the above conditions, the Official Secrets Act will not pose a problem for retired police officers.

The main ethical tangle, however, was the unexpected quandary as to whether this project should be treated as an oral history / humanities project or as a social sciences project. Now the fact that my research is based in the history department and is being funded by the Consortium for the Humanities and Arts in the South East (CHASE) should provide the answer here, yet it hasn’t been as straight forward as it seems.   The fundamental problem was deciding the eventual fate of the “raw data” (social sciences) or oral history recordings (humanities). Early on in my research I sought advice from the Open University who confirmed that I would need to go through the human ethics review process, and further discussions with a member of the Open University’s fantastic research support team suggested that my project would sit more comfortably within a social sciences framework due to the potentially sensitive nature of the material. By treating it as social sciences research, once all information had been extracted from the oral history recordings and anonymised (through transcription) the audio recordings or “raw data” could be destroyed. This has been corroborated by advice from the University’s Data Protection Coordinator: “… ensure you schedule a future deletion date for the raw data”. And again, one of the statements on the UK Data Archive (ESRC) sample Participant Consent for Research Project form is “the tape-recordings will be kept securely and destroyed in due course”, although they do note that unless there is a particular reason to do this “any key material generated by a research project should be preserved”.   Simple destruction would, I agreed, remove a huge albatross of weighty data ethics and management from around my neck: as the project stood it was going to be a delicate balancing act between providing reassurance and information for interviewees around their anonymity and legal position, without putting them off in the process – to offer them reassurance that their personal data would literally be wiped would certainly be a helpful incentive.

However, destruction felt an increasingly big and alien decision for me to take, not only because I am an ex-museum curator and conservator, but because it is more than probable that no illegal or illicit activities will be disclosed at all during the interview process. Continued reading and pondering only strengthened these doubts. For example, turning to the paper Oral history in the digital age: Metadata E.A. Mazé quotes the Oral History Association’s best practice which includes: “interviewers, sponsoring institutions, and institutions charged with the preservation of oral history interviews should understand that appropriate care and storage of original recordings begins immediately after their creation …” and later under the curator’s mission: “it involves caring for oral history interviews in all their forms from the moment of their creation … into the indefinite future; it involves caring for originals and derivatives, maintaining their integrity and reliability …”. Again in Oral history curation in the digital age Frisch, Lambert, Tebeau and Bell write that there should be “capacities to curate audio and video recordings as oral history’s primary source”. This, and all my oral history training, pointed to the fact that, as the name Oral History suggests, the primary material is the recorded voice complete with nuances, pauses and the interviewer’s questions, and any transcripts are secondary interpretations.

Photo of ball of string labelled ethicsSo I return to my starting point: it is a humanities project and as I do so I begin to realise the wisdom of the advice received throughout my oral history training: be clear from the outset what you intend to do with your oral history project once the research is over; in other words I couldn’t solve anything until I had found the end of the string. As a humanities / history project I am choosing the route of preservation, so I need to take on board all the responsibilities this entails: keeping the audio files, transcripts and metadata intact and safe and accessible for future research and I cannot write a policy around this until I know where my material will end up and what agreements that individual archive or library needs in place to accept the material. I also need to make it clear from the outset in my consent forms, information sheets and recording agreement that assignation of the interviewee’s copyright on their recorded voice is an integral part of this process. Understandably archives prefer not to accept oral histories without this copyright assignation: curating a collection where the copyright owner has to be contacted every time access is requested becomes a logistical headache. Taking this path also means I now need to find a way of reassuring the interviewees that (should they have disclosed anything on the recordings about themselves or their colleagues) this would not come back to haunt them. Placing an embargo on public access to the primary or raw data seems to be an answer and may be accepted by some archives. The embargo is written into the recording agreement and over-rides any Freedom of Information requests. It can be done on an interview by interview basis and it is usually for either 30 years or for the life of the interviewee – although the latter is harder to administer.  Conversely, following on the Boston College Belfast oral history project, archives may simply shy away from accepting any material that could be contentious. 

For me the ethics review process has been a slow and often painful journey of picking away at a tangled mesh of problems – as soon as one knot is found and untied another appears – but it’s also been a huge and positive learning curve which has contributed to my own overall understanding of my research and its implications. I still have no safe home for the long-term storage of my research data: I am currently investigating the UK Data Archive, the British Library and the East Midlands Oral History Archive (EMOHA) and their responses will, ultimately shape my research design. As such, my ethics review application was submitted yesterday with unanswered questions, not only around storage, but around law, copyright and confidentiality. I felt, however, rather than pondering any longer over questions I couldn’t answer, it was important to accept my limitations as an early career researcher, that this is my first and best attempt which I hope will open a fluid dialogue guided by the Ethics Committee’s expertise. As such, I would welcome responses to this post.

I would particularly like to thank my supervisors, Dr Chris Williams and Dr Susie West, for their support;  also Dr Margaretta Jolly who led the fantastic, and for me, indispensable CHASE training: Oral History for Public Culture which equipped me with the skills necessary to recognise and face the ethical challenges of my project.  If you are thinking of embarking on an oral history project other excellent training I have attended is a three-day Oral History Spring School at the Institute for Historical Research and a one-day Introduction to Oral History run by National Life Stories and the Oral History Society – the party-bag from this includes the “Introduction to Oral History” booklet, which has a permanent place on my desk. 

Some further reading:
Cockcroft, T. (2005) “Using oral history to investigate police culture”, Journal of Qualitative Research, 5, 3, pp.365-384;
Cowles, K. (1988) “Issues in qualitative research on sensitive topics”, Western Journal of Nursing Research, 10, pp.163-179;
Perks, R. (n.d.) Corporate and business oral history: some themes and challenges, British Library and National Life Stories;
Perks, R., Smith, G. and Smith, T. (1998) Ukraine’s Forbidden History, Dewi Lewis Publishing;
Perks, R. (2009) “The challenges of web access to archival oral history in Britain”, International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives Journal, no.32 (January), pp. 74-82;
Perks, R. (2013) “Curation or Creation? Archivists and Oral History: Rob Perks in conversation with Andrew Flinn”, Oral History, vol.41 no.1 (Spring), pp.113-119;
Perks, R. and Thomson, A. (eds.) (2016) The Oral History Reader, Abingdon: Routledge (particularly Part II: Interviewing);
Shutte-Bestek, P. and Pudlak, A. (2015) “Corporate police stories: a research note on the impact of police history on policing, police training and communication”, the European Police Science and Research Bulletin,13, Winter, pp 51-59;
Sieber, J.E. (1993) “The Ethics and Politics of Sensitive Research” in C. Renzetti and R. Lee (eds.), Researching Sensitive Topics, pp.14-26, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage;
Weinberger, B. (1995) The Best Police in the World: an oral history of English policing from the 1930s to the 1960s, Scolar Press;

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