Trouble for oral history?

By Christopher B. Daly

As I like to tell my students: History keeps happening.

The past is always with us, and here’s a case in point: the arrest of Irish leader Gerry Adams as a result of an oral history project carried out at Boston College by researchers who promised their interviewees that the contents would remain confidential. As my friend and fellow journalism professor Dan Kennedy points out, the prosecution of this case represents just part of the Obama administration’s campaign to undermine the rights of reporters (and now, researchers too).

More reports keep coming in:


From today’s Boston Globe, stories about the impact on Boston College and on Adams himself, as well as a strong column by Kevin Cullen. (plenty of comments, too, naturally)

From today’s NYTimes, a good overview by Boston correspondent Kit Seelye.

And more, from the Irish Independent and the Irish Times.





Filed under First Amendment, history, Journalism

3 responses to “Trouble for oral history?

  1. David

    4 quick questions:

    1. If a journalist had obtained a copy of the confessions, even from someone who stole them, surely you would defend the right of the journalist to disclose them?

    2. If the oral histories were statements by Condi Rice and Dick Cheyney that George W. Bush told them that he knew there were no WMD in Iraq, but that it was necessary to pretend there were to justify the invasion, would you argue against their disclosure and Bush being confronted with them?

    3. If historians’ goal should be discovering and documenting the truth, is not history better served by having Adams–a figure sure to be of interest to historians for centuries–face a rigorous inquiry into whether he lied not only about being an IRA leader, but one who ordered the murder of a single mother who had committed no crime?

    4. Should you and your fellow professor at least make the pretense of acknowledging that the murdered woman’s daughter might have a valid interest in finding out who murdered her mother and justice being served?


    • profdaly

      Of course, the victim’s family has an interest in justice, as do all members of society. I am saying that if we let the worthy goal of law enforcement trump all other values, then we shut off other ways of discovering the truth. If journalists and oral historians cannot offer confidentiality to their sources, then society is giving up that path to the truth. Police investigations are just one way and not the only one.
      Besides, consider: the work of those journalist/historians in the BC project did not


      any further police work. It’s entirely possible for the police to proceed on their own. They do not have to come along at the end of the process and demand that we break our promises and give up our sources. I hope the police go ahead and follow the law and solve cases. More power to them! But leave us alone, because I believe that honest inquiry serves society in the long run in a different way. If you allow these subpoenas to stand, then you shut down all inquiries other than police investigations.
      I have no brief for Gerry Adams. If he ordered that hit, or just knew about it, let him get what’s coming. I’m just saying that the collateral damage to history and journalism is not trivial and that it costs society, too.


      • David

        You raise significant issues, so let me pose one final question:
        the state of Oklahoma is rushing to execute an inmate who says he is innocent and the evidence against whom is shaky in the judgment of respected defense lawyers, but they have not prevailed. His defense counsel has learned that a convicted serial killer known to have committed similar murders in Oklahoma in that time period has co-authored a history of his crimes which is not be released until after his death. Does the historian have the right to withhold evidence which will result in an innocent man being executed?

        As for your prior reply, you are both mistakenly equating the rights of journalists with those of historians and glossing over the errors by these historians.

        The courts have always given journalists special consideration, but, not surprisingly, they have been much more leery about granting such rights to those who are not seeking the immediate dissemination of the truth to the public, but the dissemination years or decades later. And even a journalist, under the Branzburg case you have written about, would not be able to sit on this evidence.

        As a history major, I have great respect for the importance of history. But these oral historians claim to have made a promise of absolute confidentiality they knew they could not keep–no court had ever allowed a historian to conceal evidence of murders until after the murderers could not be prosecuted. Indeed, the documents given to participants in their project acknowledged they could not guarantee this.

        The historians’ case is also tarnished by their publicizing their receipt of evidence of unsolved murders, which practically asked for a subpoena.

        Yet another complicating factor is that the tapes first became controversial when a journalist revealed their contents–and claimed (truthfully or not) to have been given permission to listen to the tapes–do you argue that courts and the Justice Department, but not journalists, are obligated to respect a journalist/historian privilege? Why should anyone with a claim to being a journalist or historian–every blogger, tweeter or criminal writing about his own crimes–have a unilateral power that a court hearing evidence from both sides does not?

        As for law enforcement having other options to bring justice to 10 children who were orphaned when their innocent mother was murdered, there were eye witnesses to her kidnapping, all of whom the IRA, with its proud tradition of murdering witnesses, intimidated into silence. Even with the confessions, I think Adams will go free.

        Which raises a final point about damage to the public interest–Adams is perhaps the most powerful political leader in Ireland–if he is a murderer and a liar, isn’t there immense harm to the public in his being able to conceal it until long after he has left office?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s