The enormous financial repercussions of the leaking of a recording of Donald Sterling, made by mutual agreement by his archivist, Vanessa Stiviano brings the issue of archiving and privacy to the headlines again. The idea that someone might have a personal archivist might seem odd to most of us, but Sterling would not be the first billionaire with a long and controversial past who felt it was time to start gather a record of his life.
In Ireland, we still recall the manner in which the political career of Brian Lenihan Sr was ended by the publication of the ‘Duffy Tape’. Lenihan had been a key member of the opposition when the government fell in 1982, and made calls to the President to persuade him to ask the opposition to form a government without calling an election. Lenihan admitted this on a recording made by Jim Duffy when Duffy was doing academic research at UCD. During the 1992 Presidential election, Lenihan denied making any calls, and when Duffy made the recording public, Lenihan’s credibility was ruined and he lost the election to Mary Robinson. The case provides an interesting teaching case for politics methods courses – what are the issues when a recording made for academic research reveals matters of public interest? And how, when doing research, should one get consent from interviewees for later disclosures?
The issue also relates to another news story this week – the questioning of Gerry Adams by the PSNI over the murder of Jean McConville. That appears to arise from material on recorded interviews with figures in the nationalist movement kept by Boston College. Those interviews were recorded on the basis that they would be sealed until after all those involved were deceased, but that was overturned after a lengthy legal battle. In the case of the Boston College tapes, the researchers took due care to get consent on the basis of keeping the tapes closed; and while the legal case is complex, it does show that such agreements can be overturned.
In the case of public records, there are well-defined rules on publication and freedom of information. Practices for Presidential archives, government documents and other official records are now defined. Records with personal data like census returns are subject to long retention periods.
In the business world, corporations are bound both by reporting requirements and also by duties of care of records. In some cases, legal and medical confidentially applies, and suggestions that the National Health Service might make anonymised records available have raised public debate in the UK.
Outside those areas, rules governing recording interviews for archival storage is less well defined, but increasingly debated. There is a traditional archival responsibility to ensure that records are preserved, and in an age with recordings can be easily copied, that has to be balanced with the need to control access. While there are general principles of data protection, these are legislated for differently in different jurisdictions.
At the personal level, digital tools have made all kinds of recording easier, and challenge our understanding of privacy, and of personal and public space. The debates, and violence, around the use of Google Glass in places like bars are the sharp end of an issue which touches everyone with a smartphone. A decade ago, it was possible to assume that private space existed but now we have to assume that everything can become public. Some have thrown themselves into this new world in which ‘everyone is naked on the internet’ with almost reckless abandon. In many cases, the private views of public figures have been exposed to scrutiny, and found to be wanting. In several cases, we now have evidence to support our feelings that some public figures hold views which are now ‘politically incorrect’. With public bodies and public figures, there are issues of public good which must be balanced with rights of privacy. But for ordinary people who don’t have an archivist, and just want to have a quiet drink without being livestreamed on the internet, the the disappearance of privacy poses issues to which our culture has not yet adjusted.