Saturday, 17 July 2010

Some problems over redacted material with the Wiltshire reports

Historians are increasingly conscious of the fact that we can't write history. What we can write about is the way in which people see history and think history happens (Ronald Hutton)

In my earlier post, I noted how 60-70% of the Wiltshire report was missing or "redacted".

What difference does this make? It makes a great deal of difference, because it means that the context in which remarks are made are often not available, and the documentary material backing the report's conclusions is missing. It is like a mathematics problem, in which the problem is set out, the working out is missing, and suddenly there is a conclusion. There may be workings out, but we can't see them, and there may be leaps of logic which really are not justified, but without that 70%, we can't tell.

That is not to say that the evidence may not be there, but it may be subject to different interpretations. Let me take just two examples:

2.135 The only evidence we have been able to find of any action by CO POWER to address concerns about media reports is an e-mail to the Home Affairs Minister but which was dismissive and complacent in tone.

"Dismissive" and even more so "complacent in tone" are very subjective judgement. Why did Wiltshire think it was so? Did anyone else offer an opinion? In the absence of any email, that is telling us as much as how they perceive matters as what other people may think - in other words, the evidence - the email which is redacted - is lost, and we have to take it on faith that their judgment - of the tone of an email, which can be a notoriously difficult matter to assess - is accurate.

2.139 CO POWER told him [the Attorney-General] that DCO HARPER was due to retire in a matter of months and that there was a limit to the amount of practical control which he, CO POWER, could exercise. We find this unacceptable. This Inquiry believes that CO POWER should have done all within his authority to modify DCO HARPER's media approach and to provide strategic direction as to how Operation Rectangle should progress, especially in media terms.

Part of the problem with the redaction of the material is that we are left with conclusions.

For example, in this case, Wiltshire is presenting an interpretation - "limit to the amount of practical control" - but we just don't know what they based that on. This is the report of a meeting. Is that hearsay evidence from the Attorney-General, from Mr Power, or both? Given the elapsed time, if this is oral evidence, how accurate is it likely to be? Was the meeting minuted, and does appear in the minutes? If so, does that represent an accurate account of what was said or a point of view that gets what the AG understood as the gist? Was this confirmed anywhere else in emails (criterion of multiple attestation)?

I'm not saying that I might not agree with Wiltshire - I might if I had the full picture. But all I can conclude, and I give two of a considerable number of examples, is that because of the degree of redaction, it is very difficult to assess the reliability of the conclusions they draw in a number of instances, especially where there is no factual evidence available.

This will probably be not seen by the general public (along with the fact that only around 30% of the report is present - a fact not mentioned by the Jersey Evening Post) because people are generally not trained in the methods of historical research, and take the Wiltshire conclusions as face value rather than interpretations of data.

Treated as a historical document, which is all I am trying to do - I'm not trying to rubbish it, just to examine it impartially to see how much reliance can be placed on it - I'd have to say that there is a good deal of important primary documentation that in Wiltshire (as it has come to us) that is missing, and the range of reliability of the conclusions could be placed on a spectrum between very accurate (if one was something of a fundamentalist) or - if one adopted a hermeneutic of suspicion (i.e. did not take on trust anything that could not be independently corroborated) - not that that reliable at all.

Anyone who wants to see how this works should read Ronald Hutton's "The Druids", which is a first class look at how historical approaches to the druids vary depending on how much reliance one places on parts of documentary material.

Popular belief is often out of step with scholarly opinion; the idea that the Druids built Stonehenge was dismissed by scholars from the mid-19th century, but books were still promulgating this myth in the 1950s. They were also repeating one of the strangest beliefs, "that Druids had been bearers of the true patriarchal religion of the ancient Hebrews". In contrast, Victorian poetry and 20th-century popular fiction portrayed Druids performing bloody sacrifices.

Hutton's works teach us that much of history is interpretation: who is telling the story, when, and why, obviously affects the content: what we call "history". I've tried to show here that when we treat the Wiltshire report in a historical context, the missing data means that we are left with a lot of interpretation, and very little context.

As a brief conclusion to date: There is a mixture of opinion ("tone of email"), and third party reportage (CPO Power told...) which in the absence of background evidence which is redacted [i.e. missing], raises a number of extra questions over sources.



rico sorda said...

Hi Tony

What do you make of the JEP'S reporting

Surly they must know how redacted the Wiltshire report is, and what of their future.


TonyTheProf said...

I think Neil is posting a comment from Graham Power which will show this redaction is just the tip of the iceberg.

voiceforchildren said...


As you know the Wiltshire Report does semm a little more redacted than we originally thought.

Keep up the great Blogs Tony, they are unique, informative, entertaining and extremley well reasearched.