Pride and Prejudice in the Archives: issues with representation and access

Dr Natalie Hayton, Assistant Archivist, Special Collections, De Montfort University, Leicester

1 October 2019


This piece reflects on a session delivered by myself and fellow archivist Katharine Short as part of a Postgraduate Archives Open Day event. Organised by Dr Ellen Wright of the Cinema and Television History Institute (CATHI) at DMU, the day was geared towards encouraging archival research and debate in relation to film archives. The title of our session neatly reflects some of the issues raised in the session, while also acknowledging our most significant collection relating to television history: the Papers of screenwriter Andrew Davies, writer of the famous 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

Figure 1: Special Collections Manager, Katharine, organising the papers of the Andrew Davies archival collection in the Special Collections reader room at De Montfort University, Leicester, UK. Still taken from the BBC 4 documentary Andrew Davies: Rewriting the Classics. Last aired on January 28th 2019.

The session was developed with the intention of providing a behind-the-scenes approach to discussing some of the debates within the archive sector around access to archives, their use and how they reflect wider society. We chose five problematic items from our collections and asked attendees to write brief catalogue entries for them, encouraging them to consider issues of physical access, ownership and authorship, and cataloguing language. This blog post will highlight the issues raised in relation to access while touching on representation and copyright. The democratisation process within archives is very important to us at DMU, and through our work with the Stephen Lawrence Research Centre, the Equality and Diversity Team and regularly reading up on sector guidance and finding out what other repositories are doing, such as the National Archives, Archives For Everyone policy framework and Jass Thethi’s work on ‘creating a space for marginalised voices in the GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) sector’, we hope to improve our catalogues and collections. [i], [ii] & [iii] Having said that, we are aware that as archivists, we are still learning how to best catalogue, describe and make accessible problematic records.

Access all Archival Areas?

Providing access to archives is a fundamental part of our job as archivists that is found in sector standards, such as the Principles of Access to Archives produced by the International Council on Archives. Significantly, this creates a tension at the heart of the archivist role: our two core duties are to protect originals from deterioration and to provide access to them, but we believe these should not be viewed as antithetical. Extensive use of an archival item will cause damage, but at the same time it is a human right, not a privilege, to be able to view the information contained within records held in public repositories, even if the original item cannot be produced.

However, as much as we may want to assist our readers, there will always be times when we are bound by legislation, donor restrictions, technical issues or concerns surrounding security and preservation. While we are committed to seeking creative solutions, there will always be instances where access is denied, or at least postponed.

Assessing the Archives/Artefacts: Content Warning

The following examples are the items we used for the session, some of which brought forth some strong opinions regarding privileging access to collections unintentionally and whether promoting access is to the benefit of repositories and readers in all circumstances. Before moving into an examination of the objects, I want to offer a content warning as one of the items discussed is a collection of Robertson’s Preserve Manufacturers Ltd. promotional figurines known as “Golliwogs”, offensive caricatures of African American people inspired by nineteenth-century minstrelsy.

The Exhibits

Exhibit 1: Correspondence of Andrew Davies from the Papers of Andrew Davies, Screenwriter D/061

Figure 2: Redacted letter from D/061 Papers of Andrew Davies held at Special Collections De Montfort University, UK.

Just from looking at this image, it is fairly obvious that we have some access issues here! Although Davies has given permission for researchers to access any of his letters in the collection, what he cannot give permission for is access to material produced by third parties (the letters he received from others) or that which references living individuals who may have no idea that items relating to them are held in a public archive. In instances such as these it is an archivist’s responsibility and ethical duty to comply with privacy legislation such as Data Protection by either redacting information or closing the item until such a time as those mentioned are deceased. While this can be frustrating for readers and archivists alike, ultimately the protection of 3rd parties (as well as being legally binding) is not something we would want to compromise. It was in relation to this item that points were raised regarding whether it is worth promoting the existence of these letters at all, as such practice can lead to unwanted media attention and once the existence of letters of someone famous becomes more widely known, disappointment will inevitably follow when it is discovered they are off limits (for now, at least). Closures can be made at collection, series or item level and decisions are typically made on a case by case basis. At DMU we have decided to close and redact where necessary while still listing the correspondence in the catalogue in a way that favours promoting the collection as a whole as well as ensuring we are protecting individuals at item level.

Exhibit 2: Picture Show Annuals 1926-1960 held in the rare books section at Special Collections and listed on the DMU Kimberlin Library catalogue

Figure 3: Picture Show Annual, 1955, held at Special Collections De Montfort University, UK.

We specifically wanted the discussion of these books to focus on whether we should use our catalogues to highlight the white patriarchal heteronormative framework inherent to this series (seen in images featuring actors wearing black/brown and yellow face, the complete lack/under-representation of actors of colour and the gender essentialism apparent even on the front cover this 1955 edition in its depiction of complicit sexual violence). However, there are also some important physical access issues surrounding these magazines.

Figure 4: Picture Show Annual, 1955.

Figure 5: Picture Show Annual, 1955.

Like all repositories, we always offer our researchers some friendly instructions when handling items to ensure they are cared for properly when being used and to encourage readers to feel more confident about handling archives. For example, using support cushions, page weights and turning pages carefully using only the corners is not knowledge we take for granted. Unfortunately, like the Picture Annuals, some items may already be damaged, either by age or design. As you can see from the first image, some of the pages have come loose and there is a risk here that pages could become muddled with pages from other books, or taken out of order. As there is no justification for the cost of digitising we do allow access to the originals but ask readers to be mindful of the loose pages and the likelihood that others may also come out if proper care is not taken. The second image highlights a page where a feature has intentionally been removed. This obviously has implications for those readers who may have been looking for a specific piece but it does perhaps offer insight on how the books were used by previous owners e.g. cutting out images for scrap books (Special Collections has two such film star scrap book collections: Film Star Scrap Books, 1930s and Film Star Scrap Books 1925-1945).

Exhibit 3: Interview with Benazir Bhutto (Politician and Prime Minister of Pakistan 1988-2007) from the Anita Anand (Zee TV Collection).[iv]

Figure 6: Betacam tape from the Anita Anand Collection (Zee TV Collection) held at Special Collections, De Montfort University, Leicester UK.

Again, the access issue here will be obvious for those who have wanted to view materials that require obsolete technology. While many organisations will have a way of migrating recordings from VHS (video) to a digital format, unfortunately, transferring the contents of Betamax and Betacam tapes is not so readily available. The newly acquired Anita Anand (Zee TV) Collection comprises over 60 linear metres of Betacam tapes donated by the journalist and radio and television presenter. While we are doing our best to organise and begin cataloguing using the labelling on the tapes, at the moment we have no way of determining what is actually on them and it is proving difficult for us to find the resources needed to provide full access to the tapes (budget, time, storage space, expertise). In the short-term we are attempting to source a Betacam player but we are also discussing options with specialists at Media Archive of Central England and intend to put together a funding bid to get this amazing collection of Asian TV digitised and accessible to all.

Exhibit 4: Robertson’s “Golliwog” Figurines

Another recently acquired collection includes these figurines which were created by the UK’s Robertson’s Preserve Manufacturer Ltd. in the 1960s and 70s. The “Golliwog” was the mascot for the company until 2001 and these figures were redeemed for tokens collected from the labels found on purchased products.

Figure 7: 6 musician figurines from the RF Robertson’s “Golliwog” Figurines Collection held at Special Collections De Montfort University, UK.

While still viewed as collectibles and defended by many as ‘innocent and lovable’ characters rather than examples of systemic racism, this is unquestionably a naïve position. The original literary Golliwogg, found in Florence Kate Upton’s children’s books, was inspired by minstrelsy entertainment, which began in the US around the 1830s: minstrelsy typically involved troupes wearing blackface to perform songs and sketches that reinforced white supremacy and dehumanised and degraded African American people. While our discussion for this collection focused on considering the best way of conveying this information in a catalogue in terms of language and description, questions surrounding access were also plentiful. The donor of this collection specifically requested they be used as a tool for highlighting the pervasive and insidious nature of racism in cultural products, so does that mean we should restrict access to collectors or enthusiasts who only wish to view them out of curiosity?

Another issue discussed was that while we are dealing with two very different formats when working with the Anita Anand Collection and the figurines (making them incomparable in some ways), the fact that examples of racist oppression are more readily accessible than a collection that more positively contributes to archival inclusivity and diverse social representation raises questions about whether we are unwittingly upholding oppressive frameworks by failing to provide access to the tapes. This is something of a dilemma for us because obviously we do not want to give items like the figurines more of a promotional platform than collections with a wealth of untapped research possibilities, such as that which is potentially contained on the Anand tapes. It is important for us to reflect on and learn from such comments in order to continually improve our practice and ensure that we are respectful of the needs and opinions of all our users. It is only by listening and acting that we can further develop our understanding of archival access and how we can make archives and catalogues inclusive spaces.

Exhibit 5: Draft Script of Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason

Figure 8: Shooting Draft script from D/061 Papers of Andrew Davies held at Special Collections De Montfort University, UK.

For our final item we return to Davies, and a draft script for the film Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason released in 2004. This script has no less than 5 contributors, including the author of the novel from which it was adapted, creating an authorship and copyright minefield! The discussion focused on if it could be determined who made which revisions and how that impacted on access and use. Can only the parts of the script written by Davies be made available to researchers? Stamped with Davies across the front this is undoubtedly his copy of the script, but again, do the other contributors know their revisions are held in a public archive? Should we be allowing access at all? Certainly, if you wanted to quote sections of this script for a publication, as archivists, we would be advising that you would need to contact all contributors for permission to ensure compliance with copyright regulations. With layers of copyright and ownership, it can be difficult to get permission to use scripts, but happily, much of the Davies collection is solo written and with nearly a third of the archive comprising unproduced drafts, there is a wealth of accessible material for researchers.

Supporting Access for All

As we hope this blog has highlighted, we do not pretend to have all the answers but we are committed to creating a prejudice-free archive and believe that pride in our work is not the same as being too proud to learn new methods and share our expertise. Rather, we encourage a cyclical knowledge exchange with our users where decision-making processes are transparent. While we stated at the beginning of this blog that preservation is our primary duty, all of our work from re-packaging, arrangement, digitisation and migration and cataloguing is, in fact, all geared towards ensuring long-term accessibility for future generations. Even if we can’t make it available immediately, we’ll be working on it.[v]

Natalie and Katharine

To discuss any of our collections or to make an appointment please contact: archives@dmu.ac.uk

To find out more about our collections and work, visit #DMUHeritage Blog

Twitter: @DMUSpecial Colls Facebook: DMU Heritage

Instagram: dmuheritage


[i] The Stephen Lawrence Research Centre features a seminar room and communal study space as well as a permanent exhibition telling the story of Stephen’s life and murder and the legacy of Doreen Lawrence’s tireless work to achieve justice for her son. The exhibition includes several displays of items from the archival collection, Papers of Doreen Lawrence relating to the Stephen Lawrence Case. The collection is currently closed but it is hoped access arrangements will be finalised over the summer and made available to the public at Special Collections and via our online catalogue.

[ii] For further reading and examples of our work on archives and representation please visit our

#DMUHeritage Blog and Twitter @DMUSpecialColls.

[iii] Jass Thethi. Intersectional Glam. https://intersectionalglam.home.blog/ Accessed: 20/06/2019. Website

[iv] While work has started on creating an online catalogue for this collection and access is imminent, arrangements are still being finalised.

[v] The session created for the open day and this blog were both inspired in no small way by a module I have recently completed for the postgraduate qualification in Archives and Records Management at CAIS, Dundee which I am currently undertaking by distance learning.


 

Report: IAMHIST Conference, ‘Power and the Media’, 16-18 July 2019, Northumbria University

Tom May, Northumbria University

20 September 2019


The twenty-seventh biennial IAMHIST Conference at Northumbria University, ably organised by James Leggott and Johnny Walker, saw many provocative ideas advanced and academic friendships renewed and initiated. There was a fascinating range of panels; it was a real shame not to only be able to attend a quarter of them. Thus, my account of this Conference is sadly partial; it does, however, aim to give a flavour of what was argued in those rooms I was based in over the three days. I saw seven panels, two keynote lectures and one roundtable, involving a grand total of 27 speakers. Here goes!

The Conference began on Tuesday 16 July with delegates gathering in the base room on the Sandyford building’s fourth floor. Food was copious, generous and catered to diverse needs, though the infinitesimal paper plates drew some bemused comment.

Courtesy of Paul Lesch

Circa 2pm, all moved next door and James Leggott introduced the Conference. Then, James Curran (Goldsmiths, University of London) delivered a Keynote address on ‘Press, Politics and Power in Britain’. Curran gave a convincing narrative of the press in 1979-2015: which had, in some ways, successfully shifted public opinion rightwards via its scapegoating of asylum seekers, migrants and ‘scroungers’; all used to deflect blame away from the capitalist elite for the 2007-8 financial crisis.

James Curran. Courtesy of Paul Lesch

Curran began by noting characteristics of neoliberalism since 1979: privatisation and outsourcing of public assets and services, alongside greater inequality. He stressed that the press was in virtual coalition with the 1980s Thatcher governments, noting the ‘cheerleading’ role it assumed under proprietors like Matthews, Black, Murdoch and the Barclay Brothers. He emphasised how, in the 1990s, Blair established a deeper hegemony for neoliberalism. From 1997, this formed a second press-government coalition; a less evangelical and more uneasy alliance but noted how The Times urged readers to vote Labour in 2001, when The Economist also strongly endorsed Blair. In 2010, the press doubled down in support of crisis-ridden neoliberal ideology: in that year’s general election, 72% of press supported the Tories, almost exactly double the actual share of the popular vote they gained.

From 2010, Cameron mostly perpetuated governmental closeness to the press; indeed, in his first year in government, his ministers held an astonishing 130 meetings with Murdoch. He emphasised how the Blair-Cameron courting of Brooks, Murdoch and Dacre was completely at odds with ideas of journalism as the ‘Fourth Estate’, quoting Brooks’s words to Cameron: “Professionally, we are in this together”. Following the financial crisis, the press pulled its punches over business and protected the economic system overall; they did this by only criticising ‘individual bad eggs’ and shifting most blame onto a ‘profligate’ Labour government. This supported a narrative consistently advanced from 2002 that the number of migrants to the UK was imposing a burden on public services. He linked 1980s “slum people” rhetoric to 2000s press investment in “chav”; used to make increased economic and social inequality acceptable. Furthermore, he noted jingoism centring on wars, football and the absurd euro-myths such as that the EU planned to outlaw corgis! Curran played a YouTube video that drolly highlighted some of the myth making.

While Curran argued there had been a rightwards shift on migration and welfare, he concluded that the declining British press did not successfully manufacture consensus for Thatcherism or neoliberalism. Britain was remade as thoroughly neoliberal in Westminster, but not in hearts and minds outside.

In the Q&A, there was discussion of the ‘tabloidization’ of our politics – as symbolised in Boris Johnson’s ascent and rueful comments on how telling the truth is in decline in British culture. More critically, it could be argued that this excellent Keynote should been brought up to date: many of us in the audience were just as interested to hear an analysis of the fascinating, fraught period since 2015.

My first panel was ‘Power and the Press: Journalism in the UK’; Julian Petley (Brunel) opened by outlining the ‘liberal’ or ‘Fourth Estate’ model of the press as enunciated by a body such as the Hutchins Commission (1947), and showing its echoes in the working journalist David Randall’s (2016)’s conception of journalism as fulfilling a watchdog function: replacing rumour with fact, giving voice to the usually unheard, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. Petley outlined how today we face a ‘right-wing oligopoly’, with its historical roots in Lord Palmerston and Gladstone’s Victorian era arguments in favour of a capitalist press that would steer the working-classes away from radical ideas.

Next, Petley presented recent newspaper front-pages: analysing their function as propaganda, as ‘views rather than news’ or information: on the EU Referendum day ‘VOTE LEAVE TODAY’ (Daily Express, 2016) & ‘INDEPENDENCE DAY – BRITAIN’S RESURGENCE’ (the Sun, 2016). ‘COURT JEZTER’ (the Sun, 15/09/2015). The latter was a front-page attack on Jeremy Corbyn, and Petley also analysed the Sun’s highly manipulative editing of photographs from the Remembrance Day commemorations which made it appear that Corbyn was ‘dancing a jig’. He also showed newspaper front-pages the day after the publication of the IPCC report on Climate Change which entirely ignored it.

Petley identified the convergence between journalism and politics, with Boris Johnson’s ascent to Prime Minister being built on his previous journalistic ‘euro-myth’ propaganda from the early 1990s onwards, as Quatremer’s Guardian article highlights. Parties with policies that challenge the powerful interests in the press have been ruthlessly attacked by the same press: Ed Miliband’s Labour in 2015 just as much as Corbyn’s in 2017. Therefore, most of the British national press has been a lapdog rather than acting as a watchdog. He sadly detailed how, during the Leveson Inquiry, the powerful press defeated all suggestions for reform; erroneously caricaturing press reformers like Curran and himself as being Mugabe or Putin-style advocates of state censorship.

Second was Bethany Usher (Newcastle), who gave an insightful paper ‘When journalists attack’: desecrating celebrity as a mechanism for social control’. She argued that if stories pose a threat to newspapers’ values, then ‘attack journalism’ can result. For example, in 1789-94, the radical Thomas Paine was traduced in the press as a ‘traitor’, ‘Mad Tom’ and even ‘Beelzebub’; while the press articulated socialite Georgiana Cavendish’s public behaviour as outrageous; clearly, motivated by her political activism.

Following examples of attack-journalism against Clare Short and David Bowie, Usher likened the press’s treatment of Paine and Ed Miliband. Due to Miliband’s support for Leveson 2, the right-wing press saw him as a ‘huge risk’, resulting in The Sun’s arguably Anti-Semitic ‘SAVE OUR BACON’ (06/05/2015) front-page attack. Lastly, Usher argued that intimidation or persistent pursuit which causes harassment, alarm or distress needs ending in all cases.

Next was Graham Moorby (Sheffield Hallam), who gave a fascinatingly anecdotal, robust paper on how the Labour Party, from Foot to Blair moved from ‘socialism to social democracy’ and into bed with the press. He had worked on local newspapers, as producer on BBC Breakfast and even, briefly, for The Sun. He had encountered power in the form of Peter Mandelson, whom he recalls skilfully forcing the news agenda: when being interviewed he gave exactly the same answer to three different questions, ensuring the BBC broadcast his sole intended message.

As TV rose in its power compared to the press, Moorby argued it was still strongly influenced by the agenda set by the newspapers: from his experience, BBC Breakfast’s agenda was influenced by what was in the Daily Mail. Tony Blair admitted in Leveson testimony that the media had a role in formulating government policy; curiously referring to Murdoch as a “representative” of ordinary people’s views, rather than a powerful agent acting in his own interest!

Lastly, Marie Garnier (Wageningen University) analysed ‘the Role of newspapers in the public debate and contestation about chicken meat production in the United Kingdom, 1985-2016’. Garnier highlighted newspapers role in democratic societies, enabling debates and contestations. She referred to Habermasian ‘public space’ theories, arguing that UK newspapers often fall short, but also questioned rhetoricizing of the ‘the media’, or indeed specific institutions as a coherent actor.

Garnier’s statistical study of newspaper coverage of chicken meat production uses hundreds of articles; there was a lack of clear patterns, but some noise. Certain issues, such as avian flu, showed a spike in the graph coinciding with the outbreak. Specific issues were dealt with in isolation, with few of her identified issues being explicitly linked by the press. She concluded that Polemic Contestation and diffusion of public debate were both emergent political effects, and stressed the need to avoid an either/or use of actor-oriented and structural approaches.

The Q&A included Petley arguing that a free market in ideas is not a free market and that market forces act as forces of censorship and undermine the ‘Fourth Estate’. Usher mentioned John Wilkes’s arguments (1771) about the freedom of the press as the ‘birth-right of Britons and as the foundation of democracy, but also noted complications due to monopolisation. Garnier responded by emphasising it should mean Freedom from corporate power as well as from the state. Petley added that we would do well to consider the ideas of Fromm and Berlin (“Freedom from” and “Freedom to”). When asked what positive signs there were, Petley pointed to local papers and argued that, while The Guardian is flawed, it should be supported; e.g. Carole Cadwalladr’s campaigning journalism – and, surely Amelia Gentleman in illuminating the Windrush scandal. Panellists concurred that ‘attack’ or ‘muck-raking’ traditions of journalism aren’t necessarily bad; it depends on motivations and contexts; W.T. Stead was mentioned as a good example. Moorby concluded by recalling how the NCTJ courses in the early 1990s did not mention ethics at all, so, ethical practice is comparatively foregrounded today.

In the evening, delegates decamped to the Sutherland building for a reception, in which James Chapman paid tribute to the outgoing IAMHIST President Nicholas J. Cull with a rendition of Gilbert & Sullivan’s 140-year old ‘I’m the Very Model of a Modern [IAMHIST President]’.

Nicholas J. Cull, Leen Engelen and James Chapman. Courtesy of Paul Lesch

It was mentioned that the IAMHIST’s archive of its own history was now active, including this trailer to launch it:

The 2017 and 2018 IAMHIST prize-winners were congratulated: Susan Murray, who won the Michael Nelson Book Prize for her monograph Bright Signals: A History of Colour Television, Sangjoon Lee, who won the The 2017 David H. Culbert Routledge Prize for the Best Article by an Established Scholar for an essay on anti-communist filmmaking in Korea and Laura Mayne, who won the 2017 Philip M. Taylor Routledge Prize for the Best Article by a New Scholar for a piece on the decline of the British “B” movie in the early 1960s. Kate Fortmueller won the 2018 David H. Culbert Routledge Prize for the Best Article by an Established Scholar for ‘Gendered Labour, Gender Politics: How Edith Head Designed her Career and Styled Women’s Lives’, and Penny Chalk won the 2018 Philip M. Taylor IAMHIST-Routledge Prize for the Best Article by a New Scholar for her article ‘Edgar Dale’s Film Appreciation Programme: An Early Education in Adaptation’. Leen Engelen was announced as the newly elected President of IAMHIST. Elsewhere, intriguingly, an IAMHIST theme song was alluded to, but, sadly or otherwise, not performed!

Leen Engelen. Courtesy of Paul Lesch

My Day 2, Wednesday, began with the panel ‘Propaganda and Information in Post-War Europe’. First up were Fredrik Norén (Umeå) and Emil Stjernholm (Malmö) whose paper was entitled ‘Propaganda and information as naive benevolence: Lessons from post-war Sweden’. Stjernholm highlighted the Swedish word upplysning, meaning enlightenment and information. He noted the Swedish welfare state was underpinned by use of the media’s soft power, linking to Christian anarchist philosopher Jacques Ellul’s idea of propaganda as key in nurturing a democracy.

Norén explained how, in the 1950s, a Swedish trade union had wanted Swedes to become more internationalist. They claimed it didn’t matter whether it was called information or propaganda as it is all the same. He claimed that, in the 1960s, the media used ‘propaganda’ neutrally or positively about a propaganda film concerning tuberculosis – and, as late as 1967, to describe a campaign to inform drivers about a change to right-hand traffic. However, he argued their research supported a general trend: the shift from ‘propaganda’ to ‘information’.

Brendan Maartens (Middlesex, Mauritius Branch) gave a fascinating, overlooked historical account of propagandist military recruitment by the post-war Attlee governments, 1945-51. He began by noting how histories emphasise Attlee’s Welfare State achievements at the expense of examining militarism. Boys under 18 could be recruited as volunteers or conscripts. Recruitment methods included newspaper advertisements including these, entitled: ’14 Reasons Why THE MODERN ARMY OFFERS YOU A SPLENDID CAREER’ and ‘Gosh! Mum… I’m glad I joined the NAVY’. Such fictitious testimonials and the Schoolboys’ Exhibitions (1948-50) emphasised camaraderie, skills-building and pay. As did recruitment-geared film shorts in British cinema’s era of greatest popularity: evidenced by the trailer to Join the Navy (1946), which we watched. As Maartens wryly noted, war and conflict are conspicuously absent; a grim elision given that many young conscripts subsequently served and died in the Korean War.

Furthermore, Maartens claimed that Britain remains the only country in Europe to recruit child soldiers – as criticised by Forces Watch, NGOs, veterans and the UN. He then showed RoyalNavyRecruitment’s recent Made in the Royal Navy: Gareth’s Story (2015). This was more bluntly voiced by a Blyth, Northumberland-born serviceman, portraying the army as more educative than school, while framing Blyth as a marginal place to be escaped. Maartens claimed its psychological recruitment strategies mirror those used by Isis. Ruefully, he explained that the recruitment of boy soldiers has consistently had cross-party support; alongside expected Tory backing, he noted Wilson and Blair, scathingly remarked of the latter: “We’d expect him to support it because he was an arsehole…”

In the Q&A, it was argued that recruitment discourses avoided violence as potential recruits would already be attuned to the violence fed them via commercialised cultural products fetishizing war like the many WW2-set war films, comic strips and toys. There was interesting discussion about how the Labour governments found it tough prioritising between societal and militaristic spending. This seemed to fit with David Edgerton’s arguments that historians have mythologised and retrospectively exaggerated the strength of the Welfare State, ignoring the Warfare State from 1920-70.

When asked ‘When did propaganda become a dirty word?’ Norén and Stjernholm explained that in the UK it had generally been accepted: all political parties used to have ‘propaganda’ departments. Yet, in those states more directly affected by totalitarianism from the 1930s on, it was seen more pejoratively. Maartens noted greater scepticism following the OPEC crisis of 1973, an era which I would argue saw many scathing and bleak British fictions of army life: The Wednesday Play ‘Sovereign’s Company’ (1970), Plays for Today ‘The Rainbirds’ (1971) & ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ (1980), Looks and Smiles (1981) and the popular, controversial Falklands War-set Tumbledown (1988), which earned front page stories in the tabloid press.

Recruiting boy soldiers young allows the army to more easily socialise them into military ways. Lawrence Napper added that the Blyth advert runs on television quite frequently, but mentioned how an older popular film Carry On Sergeant (1958) represented army life as “crap”. Final points included Ene Selart on an army campaign in Estonia to recruit girls via an appeal to fashion and Maartens on controversy surrounding Royal Navy’s Made in Carlisle (2016), who dubbed the sailor’s Cumbrian accent into Geordie.

As mid-morning approached, instead of Alan Partridge’s dulcet radio tones, came the ‘British Television and Identity’ panel. First up was Stuart Frazer (Northumbria) who spoke about ‘The ‘North-South’ divide’ and Catherine Cookson’s The Fifteen Streets, particularly analysing Tyne Tees Television’s adaptation (1989). Frazer noted Cookson was raised in the ‘fifteen streets’ in East Jarrow where her grim experiences inflected her 103 novels (1952-98). He argued there was a correlation between ITV’s Cookson cycle’s high ratings and tourist visits to South Tyneside (from 1985, ‘Catherine Cookson Country’). He displayed current ‘working-class’ associations via a Google Images search: oddly, ex-stockbroker and MEP Nigel Farage came up following Loachian social realism and Little Britain caricatures.

Next, Frazer noted common tropes in The Fifteen Streets: southerner moving north, culture shock, northerners grasping that success necessitates moving south. In addition, he noted ‘inauthentic’ Geordie accents by the likes of Sean Bean and Billie Whitelaw as an RP speaking southerner amid a cultureless north-east. This brought on thoughts of ideas like ‘social mobility’ and ‘meritocracy’, which posit ‘northern’ and ‘working-class’ as identities to be escaped. He argued The Fifteen Streets 90% confirms cruel stereotypes about the north east and its broad stereotyping undermines the community it purports to represent.

Second up was Derek Johnston (Queen’s, Belfast) who spoke about ‘Tradition, nation and the power of the schedule’. He quoted Ellis (2000) on scheduling being where power lies; then Billig (1995) and Scannell (1986) on how broadcasting is central in forming ‘banal nationalism’ or national identity. He showed a 1925 Radio Times in which Hallowe’en was associated with rural, remote Scotland and portrayed as widely disbelieved now: conveyed by the predominant past tense.

Johnston reference a 2017 YouGov poll which showed 28% of Scots thought Hallowe’en was a British tradition, compared with only 12% in the ‘rest of south’. Then, he discussed Radio Times’ Christmas ghost stories which circulated ‘dominant middle-class English’ values, while the RT elided and marginalised regional content. Lastly, adding to his earlier bemusement over the BBC’s screening of the City of London-centric Lord Mayor’s Show across all-regions, he mentioned how the recent BBC1 broadcast of The Twelfth Live (12/07/2019), an Orange Order-featuring Ulster Protestant celebration, is classified on the iPlayer website as ‘entertainment’: denying the cultural and political issues at stake, and the history of sectarianism.

Tom May (Northumbria) – your Conference reporter – spoke about ‘Power, region and class in Play For Today (BBC1, 1970-1984)’. I introduced this neglected, yet formerly prestigious, strand of topical dramas, shown in a prime-time BBC1 slot after the 9 o’clock news for nearly half the year and contextualised it within a BBC that Tom Burns called a ‘social-industrial complex’. I argued that some PFTs were made by avowedly left-wing radicals working within the BBC where wider output was mainly pro-status quo – e.g. the Queen’s Jubilee or police dramas. BBC Chairman Michael Swann regarded political PFTs as justifiable on ‘realist’ grounds, and saw them as balanced out by the BBC’s overall output. However, John Hill has highlighted the committed left-wing dramas were a small fraction of even total drama output.

I discussed three never-repeated PFTs I had watched at the North East Film Archive via the BFI: Dominic Behan’s ‘Carson Country’ (1972) and Stephen Fagan’s ‘The Network’ (1979) and ‘Under the Hammer’ (1984). I noted the relevance today of the issues and themes these plays addressed: the roots of sectarian Troubles in Northern Ireland and the mistrust of professional elites, such as patriarchal doctors at an adoption agency and cut-glass accented curators at a London art gallery. I analysed specific instances of religious, gender and class conflict.

In the Q&A, Frazer spoke about the dilapidated state of the South Tyneside museum and was pessimistic about any possible resurgence. Petley noted the paradigmatic grimness of northern representation is balanced by cosier depictions such as the BBC sitcom Last of the Summer Wine. This led to talk of geographical locales being given an ascribed literary identity – e.g. Hardy’s Wessex – and how book sales can be boosted by the frequency and popularity of film and television adaptations. ‘Dark Tourism’ was debated: e.g. how, problematically, Whitechapel has been claimed by Ripperologists, to which Hallie Rubenhold has offered an overdue corrective with the recent The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper. I mentioned reports of many going on holiday to Chernobyl reflecting a cultural predilection for the bleak. Jonathan Bignell usefully recommended that I use the BBC Audience Research Reports about PFT and examine whether region, nation or class are mentioned.

The next panel I attended was ‘Censorship and Regulation: State Power’. The first speaker was Gabriela Filippi (National University of Theatre and Film, Bucharest) whose interesting paper was on ‘Romanian cinema of the State Socialist period’. She noted the desire within the Romanian state to replace bourgeois art with a socialist cinema which aimed to feature fewer portrayals of the rich and famous.

Filippi claimed the “first Communist film” was in 1950, followed by the important film about collectivization: Jean Georgescu and Victor Iliu’s În sat la noi (In Our Village) (1951), which bore the influence of Eisenstein and Aleksandrov. Filippi criticized political films – like Jean Mihail’s Brigada lui Ionuț (Ionuț’s Brigade) (1954) – describing them as ‘lousy’, ‘schematic’ and lacking in nuances. Filippi cautioned against viewing the Romanian state as monolithic and controlling, explaining how a review of Visconti’s La Terra Trema (1948) didn’t fit with ideas of a Communist mastermind guiding and controlling with propaganda.

Next up was Jorge Iturriaga (Universidad de Chile), who gave a stimulating, empirical paper on ‘Film censorship in Chile 1960-1990: a Comparison between democratic period and dictatorship’. He explained in Chile, censorship emerged in the 1920s from the conservative Catholic Church. He explained his focus was on two distinct periods: 1960-73 and 1973-83. The former era was democratic with right-wing, centre and then a left-wing socialist government. The latter period began with the September 1973 CIA-backed coup overthrowing Allende’s regime and installing General Augusto Pinochet as head of an unelected dictatorship.

Jorge Iturriaga. Courtesy of Tom May

Iturriaga showed a graph which indicated the peaks and troughs in terms of the numbers of films reviewed by the CCC board per year with 1973 markedly low – due to Hollywood majors’ boycott of the socialist government in 1973. Using charts, Iturriaga showed that dictatorship made things more restrictive: with 29% of the films were deemed to be for those aged older than 21 or forbidden, compared with 19% in 1960-73. The percentage ‘forbidden’ was five times as high in the later era. He claimed that Italian giallo and erotica films raw nerves, as born out statistically by 96 Italian films being banned from 1960-83, with 72 of these under Pinochet.

Finally, John Jenks (Dominican University) gave an absorbing paper on the British Information Research Department (IRD)’s covert propaganda in post-colonial Africa, 1957-75. He highlighted how more than a dozen African colonies had been British colonies in 1957; all were independent by 1968. The IRD was created at the onset of the Cold War in 1948 and remained secret for all of its 29 year existence. He explained how Colonial Office and the IRD worked together, post-Suez Crisis, to nurture regimes that would be friendly to British interests – for example, in Kenya, Yemen and in Ghana where pan-Africanist leader Kwame Nkrumah was seen as a threat. The IRD helped inform a successful military coup in 1966.

John Jenks. Courtesy of Tom May

Religion had a role: the Catholic Church was so powerful that it could go anywhere in Africa. Their main contact in London was Father William Burridge, who ensured that seminaries and schools got the IRD publications. From 1960, fronts like the Ariel Foundation sold housekeeping tips, crossword puzzles and other seemingly unideological copy into Third World newspapers: to impede pro-communist material. Jenks ended by claiming that elite targets probably realized the IRD was behind the propaganda and its purpose; ordinary people wouldn’t have been aware and were hoodwinked.

In the Q&A, Iturriaga described Allende’s Socialist government as more tolerant of exploitation films than Pinochet’s regime was. The fact that there were scandals in the press when Fellini, Godard, Bergman-type art films were rejected – unlike when comedies or erotic movies were banned – showed the prestige around auteur figures. Jenks claimed that the division between IRD and MI6 were often very blurry when it came to ‘black propaganda’ and that it has taken Inquiries such as that on Bloody Sunday (1998-2010) to reveal details of IRD misdeeds, such as document forging.

Last points included Filippi explaining there were some free subsidised screenings in rural Romanian villages, especially of agricultural films. Jenks highlighted a lack of academic work on Visnews – an organisation that aimed to communicate to the grassroots public, and which was responsible for running 31 television news stations in Africa: practically all African news emanated here.

This was a ridiculously hot day; thus, it was each room needed providing with ample cups and drinking water. My next panel was the compellingly empirical ‘Mining the Archives: Capital, Creativity and Agency in British film production’, chaired by Justin Smith. First was Llewella Chapman (East Anglia) who spoke about using the Bank of England archive which reveals the extent of US financing of British films, 1938-39 and which she had drawn upon to produce a database. This includes details of production costs, including salaries. She then hosted an impromptu quiz, asking: ‘Who was the highest paid British film star in 1938/39?’ There were quite a few blank faces in the room; however, Lawrence Napper correctly answered that it was Lancashire’s finest, Gracie Fields! Who was paid £50,000 per film, e.g. Shipyard Sally and Keep Smiling, which cost £159,000, thus GF got about 31% of this.

Llewella Chapman followed this by presenting an image of the Top 10 highest paid stars in 1938-39, e.g. Will Hay and Charles Laughton. She posed a second quiz question: who has the highest paid British film director at that time? Nobody got the answer: obscure perceived journeyman Monty Banks – who was paid £15,103 for Keep Smiling and Shipyard Sally and £20,103 for We’re Going to Be Rich.

Llewella Chapman’s ‘star’ cost slide. Courtesy of Tom May

Next up was Jenny Stewart (Leicester) whose paper was ‘Locating women filmmakers’ agency in the British film industry: Examining the Muriel Box diaries, 1943-1962’. Stewart had used the BFI and other published sources; she checked how familiar people were with MB’s films, and few seemed to be; I’ve seen the fascinating time-capsule Simon and Laura (1955), an astute fictional representation of the rise of television, but that’s all! Significantly, in 1965, Box was also co-founder of Femina Books – the UK’s first feminist publisher. The diaries include a rich mix of gossip and social history – e.g. London in the Blitz. Stewart gave the example of Box’s thoughts upon meeting the lauded auteur Orson Welles: “a conceited, ego-centred gentleman, guaranteed to put anyone’s back up within five minutes”.

Stewart explained Box encountered varieties of sexism but that she succeeded by earning a reputation as an efficient director, consistently able to complete films on budget and on time, e.g. Street Corner (1953), which she wrote and directed and made in collaboration with the London Metropolitan police. In her diaries, Box mentions the suffragette activist Emmeline Pankhurst in relation to the film and press discourses highlighted gender. Stewart ended by noting how, from the early 1950s, Box specifically refers to herself as a feminist: being acutely aware of her own position as a female director within an industry she saw as an “impenetrable jungle”.

The final speaker was James Chapman (Leicester) who gave a case study of ‘The Film Finances Archive and Golden Rendezvous (1977)’, drawing on use of Film Finances Archive (FFA) materials pertaining to this South African-made thriller. While GR itself was of ‘no great artistic or cultural importance’, his description of it as ‘Die Hard on a ship’ amused all. He gave a compelling tale of a breakdown in power relationships. In 1974, MGM had sold the rights to Andre Pieterse for $1. Much financial dubiousness ensued; the production ended up based in an offshore tax haven – fairly common practice then.

James Chapman gave an account of the production difficulties; delays due to weather, problems with local contractors, equipment breaking down and lead star Richard Harris going on strike with the major action sequence yet to filmed. Identifying a ‘black hole’ in the accounts, James Chapman echoed the general consensus that Pieterse was “a bit of a crook” which brought inevitable litigation. GR did poorly worldwide, partially as international opinion was shifting on Apartheid and, as a result, this film became a ‘toxic product’, with little afterlife. He claimed FFA evidence suggests that its director was entirely side-lined – forming a significant challenge to auteur theory. He explained the producer had more creative and economic agency, while distributors and financiers had the whip-hand, and argued we should adjust our view of film history accordingly.

In the Q&A, Stewart noted how the industry so often confused Betty and Muriel Box’s names and how Muriel balanced work with family life. James Chapman elucidated how Golden Rendezvous wasn’t the only maritime film to suffer bad weather: the NFFB’s Gift Horse (1952), while linking GR to other imperialism-centric actioners like Gold (1974) and Shout at the Devil (1976). Llewella Chapman emphasised that a director’s pay might be affected by industry perceptions of reliability. Following my question on star pay in the 1960s-70s, James Chapman explained the surprising fact that Sean Connery was only paid £6,000 for his debut as James Bond in Dr. No (1962), though his rate was doubled for From Russia with Love (1963).

It was stated how in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) British star Alec Guinness was paid £250,000, a grotesque 40+ times more than the Egyptian Omar Sharif: giving a different complexion to the debate over the film’s Britishness. When asked about whether he’d done a ‘taxonomy of disasters’, James Chapman detailed accidents and accountancy errors affecting The Stranger’s Hand (1954), Lancelot and Guinevere (1963), explaining how the FFA liked efficient directors like Muriel Box, rather than the profligate likes of Terry Gilliam.

Next, many of us walked down to Newcastle upon Tyne’s historic Quayside, where James Leggott introduced the Amber collective’s documentary From Us to Me (2016) at the small Side Cinema. This gave a richly retrospective account of the lives and values of East Germans from the shipbuilding and fishing town Rostock, whom Amber had previously documented in 1988, and showed how they’d fared since the fall of the communist GDR and reunification with the capitalist West. This film’s oral history-based narrative was ideologically even-handed; the participants explained how post-1989 capitalism had produced mixed results, creating consumerism and opportunities for some, but hadn’t provided the sort of job or pension security they were used to in the GDR.

Tyneside Cinema interior. Courtesy of Paul Lesch

Afterwards, there was a Q&A with the Amber Collective’s Ellin Hare who was involved with both films. This self-identified ‘socialist’ claimed that the collective’s reputation as ‘Left Labour’ meant the GDR saw them as ‘safe’ and unlikely to produce anti-GDR propaganda; furthermore, they didn’t encounter Stasi surveillance and were given free rein – though it was noted how uncomfortably conscious some of the Rostok people were of the ‘party line’. Lastly, Hare spoke of how the cultural mood had turned against documentaries by the 1980s; however, Channel 4 showed the 1988 film in Eleventh Hour alongside the DEFA-backed East German film about North Shields.

Q&A with the Amber Collective’s Ellin Hare. Courtesy of Paul Lesch

Next, we were joined by other delegates for an excellent Conference Meal at Ury Restaurant, nearby on the Quayside. This included a generous array of dishes from Ury’s signature Keralan cuisine, from south-west India. After 11pm, I just about managed to stagger uphill through the centre of the city and back home, to get some sleep before further helpings of IAMHIST intellectual sustenance!

Day 3, Thursday, began with the ‘Censorship and Regulation: Cinema’ panel. Sian Barber (Queen’s, Belfast) addressed regional power and politics in early UK film censorship – drawing on research from the Public Records Office, Northern Ireland. Barber explained how patterns of production and distribution and censorship can reflect power struggles and culture in Northern Ireland, building on John Hill’s previous work. She explained that the BBFC was established in 1912 and intended as a London-situated ‘buffer’ between film industry and audiences. Barber explained how both Home Office minister John Anderson and the RUC wanted uniform practice across the UK. Yet, in practice, the BBFC and the Ministry of Home Affairs NI would allow local autonomy when a film might provide ‘incitement to crime’ or ‘disorder’ and would take into account religious sensibilities of what might be deemed ‘injurious’ to public morality or taste.

Sian Barber. Courtesy of Tom May

Next, Barber cited religious protests against ‘morally risky situations, bedroom scenes etc.’ across film output. There was cross-faith religious unity: Anglicans, Presbyterians, Jews and Catholics all shared a moral critique and emphasis on ‘protecting children’. For instance, Newry Methodist Church praised Dublin’s strong censorship record. Barber closed with the case of Frankenstein (1931): after the Classic Cinema in Belfast had banned it, people from rural Ballyclare went to the city, watched it and prohibited it themselves.

Second and last on the panel was Chris O’Rourke (Lincoln) whose enthralling paper utilised research from the National Archives in London and expanded on Barber’s focus on moral censorship by considering film distribution in interwar Britain and the regulation of sexuality in films. He discussed several press stories constituting what he defined as a ‘moral panic’ from 1920-23 about unlicensed film shows in London’s West End: e.g. ‘NEW WEST END SCANDAL. SECRET CINEMAS IN PRIVATE HOUSES.’ (The Globe, 14/01/1920), which also described ‘films of a most lewd character’.

Chris O’Rourke. Courtesy of Tom May

Next, O’Rourke described evidence of exceptionally rare UK screenings of pornographic films by Tom Leech in the West Midlands: neglected by a national media obsessed with policing the ‘renowned cultural centre’ that was the West End of London. The press reported Leech’s court appearance in 1921 over film screenings in Oldbury and fulminated over the ‘undiluted filth’ of those he showed in West Bromwich, which were deemed ‘liable to be injurious to morality’. O’Rourke noted a xenophobic edge to journalistic narratives in The Globe about foreigners smuggling in such films; French-ness was often pejoratively identified. He ended with a tantalising local example: a lone press report he’d uncovered from 1938 about police arresting a man in Newcastle for showing obscene films at a nudist camp.

The extended Q&A enabled especially rich discussion. Barber noted that the BBFC reviewers were elected and then formed into sub-committees and that this impacted on whether greater sectarianism emerged. In respect of ‘blue films’, an audience member noted gender exclusivity: 1960s British film crews would knock off at lunchtime and go and watch “blueies” in the 1960s. Class exclusivity was also stressed: such films were allowed to be exhibited in private members’ clubs, with subscription fees: economically pricing out the working-class. For example, in his stately home, Prince Louis Mountbatten had his own private cinema and showed non-BBFC-approved films that had. This was a class, not a cultural, censorship.

Lawrence Napper appraised the dangers of ‘anecdotalism’; while the 1938 Newcastle case may have an anecdotal power, historians may regard it as a ‘good enough source’. Barber ended by reflecting on how underused local authority records are; one of her research students was, apparently, the first ever person to ask Dewsbury and Halifax councils to look at material of their film ‘watch committees’.

Self-proclaimed ‘protégé’ of media scholar David H. Culbert, J.E. Smyth (Warwick), delivered the Conference’s second fascinating Keynote on ‘The politics of remembering the women who ran Hollywood: The President and the Secretary’. She opened by announcing she would explore and challenge ideas of women as associated with signifiers like ‘powerlessness’ and ‘secretary’ and men’s association with ‘power’ and ‘professor’. She centred on ‘President’ Mary C. McCall Jr. (1904-86), of the same generation as Muriel Box. The Secretary Silvia Schulman (1913-93) was even more marginalised: overshadowed by famous producer David O. Selznick.

Smyth explained that, by the early 1950s, women made up 40% of all Hollywood studio employees – up from 25-30% pre-WW2. She argued that even those advancing feminist arguments have overlooked this and have described Hollywood as intrinsically anti-feminist, e.g. the cliché of menial workers and starlets. Smyth extended her critique to Western film education per se, noting the pre-eminence and canonising of ‘male geniuses’ – director auteurs, and, to an extent, moguls – within the syllabus. She outlined her experience of a ‘Classical Hollywood Cinema’ module teacher claiming it was all about white men and announcing that feminism would be just covered ‘a bit at the end’. She showed images symbolising this elision, including a Busby Berkeley film still representing choreographed women’s legs: displayed for the male gaze, denied agency.

Smyth referred to ‘Classical Hollywood Cinema’ as a ‘highbrow’ construction that neglects women, e.g. most film degree courses’ reading matter describes Janet Leigh as a tool of directors like Hitchcock. Instead of the ahistorical ‘Classical Hollywood Cinema’, with its fraudulent ‘realism’ used as a cover for its focus on the ‘usual suspects’, she posed the ‘The Studio System’ as the alternative – Leigh, de Havilland and Davis all recognised this with its ethos of professionalism, not the bravura technique extolled in auteur theory. Under the Studio System, women stars ‘carried’ the sort of romances and melodrama pictures which were favoured by audiences. She cited Bette Davis’s sneering at ‘New Hollywood’ auteurs and underlined Davis’s claim in 1977 that “women owned Hollywood for 20 years” during the 1930s-40s with the fact that there were 60 women editors in the Studio System – e.g. Margaret Booth and Barbara McLean. Women Guild members of varied political affiliations agreed on gender campaigns and fought the Blacklist.

Some Hollywood men could be relatively enlightened: as well as employing many women, Samuel Goldwyn penned an article entitled ‘WOMEN RULE HOLLYWOOD’. Goldwyn and Selznick’s milieu included the likes of Lillian Hellman and Dorothy Parker. Smyth claimed historians display a patriarchal blindness to such evidence and absurdly rely on one 1936 Gallup poll for their claim that feminism died between the Waves. Smyth persuasively countered this by claiming there was an ‘unheralded progressiveness’: from 1929-40, the rate of women in skilled Hollywood employment steadily increased. In contrast to much recent writing on Old Hollywood – ‘Kenneth Anger […] with a so-called feminist twist’ – Smyth aimed to chart a more nuanced history via her two case studies.

She told Mary C. McCall Jr.’s story – elected President of the Screenwriters’ Guild in the 1940s – which challenges the myth that moguls and unions dominated the Studio System and excluded women. She noted McCall’s achievements as President: maximum working hours per week and pay rises during WW2. She was seen as politically moderate – able to act as an honest-broker between left and right – and actively fought Hollywood misogyny alongside Dorothy Arzner and Rosalind Russell. She didn’t just make ‘women’s pictures’; she made gangster films and a Shakespeare adaptation when nine months pregnant, as well as adapting George Kelly and Sinclair Lewis.

Smyth referred to the ten-film Maisie series – which started with Maisie (1939) – as unfairly neglected in Hollywood histories. It featured working-class Irish-American Maisie Ravier (Ann Sothern) who changes boyfriends and jobs: which, Smyth amusingly explained, are invariably far more interesting than the boyfriends! This series, eight of which are McCall-penned, is scarce: Criterion haven’t released it on DVD/BR, favouring more masculine-centric films. Smyth also highlighted how, at this time, some studio heads hired more women: e.g. Harry Cohn of Columbia. However, the progressive times ended. In the early 1950s, McCall took Howard Hughes to court over the blacklisting of writer Paul Jarrico and lost the case: ending her career. Earlier, McCall had written a satirical novel, The Goldfish Bowl (1932). Instead of her, Warner Brothers employed Robert Lord to adapt it as It’s Tough to Be Famous (1932). Despite such setbacks, McCall defended Hollywood in 1943, saying: “Hollywood enabled me to become a writer”.

Smyth told the tale of Silvia Schulman, Selznick’s New Yorker secretary, who was a driving force behind Gone with the Wind (1939): arguing it was important as a story of a woman. Selznick had a mixed record: he promoted women but also continually made passes at them. Schulman, who knew “where the bodies are buried”, wrote a novel I Lost My Girlish Laughter (1938) published under the penname ‘Jane Allen’; it drew on her time with DOS and, therefore, proved too real for some to handle. Her name got out, via a woman: ending her Hollywood career. While Orson Welles adapted it for radio, he decentred her narrator, in favour of producer Sidney Brand. She contended it shows a truer vision of women’s deep involvement in Studio System Hollywood and challenges the prevalent ‘male Svengali’ myth. She posited a tantalising alternative history: what if Harry Cohn had picked up the ‘Jane Allen’ novel and got Arzner to direct and McCall to produce it?

Smyth closed by questioning how we have been programmed with such Hollywood myths, which have seemingly been bolstered by #MeToo stories to form an ahistorical master narrative of agency-less women being victimised by the big bad wolf. She argued for the importance of the 40% women statistic in prompting a major rethink about what happened between the feminist Waves.

J. E. Smyth and Leen Engelen. Courtesy of Paul Lesch

In the Q&A, Smyth remarked that the percentages of women employees fell to between 10-20% in the 1960s, with only some progress since. Smyth argued politics was important in women’s declining power; FDR had been progressive on gender, yet the Blacklist had a severe impact alongside industry decline. By the 1960s, the ‘independent’, non-studio era saw nepotistic, patriarchal job appointments, in contrast to the ‘less biased’ 1930s-50s Studio System, which produced a wide talent pool of women. In the 1960s, directors began to believe their own press and gained power, as ‘auteurism’ took hold. An audience member highlighted the limiting and limited discursive rhetoric of ‘John Ford’s The Searchers’.

IAMHIST veteran David Ellwood chaired the last panel I attended: ‘Politics and Diplomacy’. First up was Richard Farmer (East Anglia) who provided a history of Clement Attlee’s links with cinema. He explained Attlee’s image as austere and pleasure-averse, though claimed his formidable stamina was built on relaxing with crosswords, reading, gardening, family life, sports like cricket. Biographers have neglected his interest in cinema, in contrast with Churchill, whose love of sentimental cinema informed his popular persona.

Richard Farmer. Courtesy of Tom May

Farmer noted Attlee was critical of That Forsyte Woman (1949) in which Errol Flynn played Soames Forsyte; conveying Attlee’s antipathy, Farmer amusingly captioned an image ‘#NotMySoames’. Attlee went to public screenings as a duty; from 1945, he took pleasure in watching many privately at ‘Chequers’, the Buckinghamshire country house gifted in 1917 by Lord and Lady Lee as a ‘grace and favour’ residence for UK Prime Ministers. Amid public austerity, Attlee lived there frugally, leading to an unhappy visitor’s critique: ‘thimblefuls of sherry and freezing bedrooms’. He saw a mix of British and American fiction films and newsreels; some selections were based on reviews by the likes of Caroline A. Lejeune and Dilys Powell, suggesting an adherence to ‘quality’ press tastes. While the Lees had thought it ‘important that the Prime Minister should have a cinema’, Attlee’s middle-class asceticism may have influenced how, from 1949-51, he reduced and ended film viewing at Chequers. However, when Churchill became PM again in 1951, he reinstated it.

Building on Farmer’s discussion of political public image, Sarah Bowman (Northumbria) gave a paper on ‘Resilience and stabilisation in post-conflict situations: the Media, communications and security nexus’. Bowman explained her Public Relations discipline and grounding in Maureen Taylor (2009)’s definitions of ‘Civil Society’, which brought thoughts of whether the United Kingdom may require peace and reconciliation initiatives to resolve the Brexit issue. She noted how communications and media sector is critical in selling war or peace: fostering collective identities and resilience. She referred to 1960s systems theory on the interconnection of things, persons and ideas and also that narratives were vital in conflict resolution: storytelling and ‘visioning’ were important within a ‘responsible’ media.

Bowman explained her project will use case studies that may include situations in Nigeria or Northern Ireland. She noted vital PR initiatives such as creating grassroots radio stations, broadcasting town hall debates and, in Darfur, inclusive radio dramas. In the Q&A, Ene Selart mentioned the example of a party political advert showing a fictionalised image of a segregated bus stop, where Russians and Estonians had to wait in different spaces: arguing this party was irresponsibly using the media to stir up ethnic tensions.

Next was Lu Xin (Chinese University of Hong Kong) whose paper on provincial print culture in China over a century ago traversed fascinating, unfamiliar ground. Xin’s richly illustrated power-point included the print ‘Litter Turtles Carry the Beauty’ (1905) which carried symbolism: turtles were disdained as shameful and lower and were specifically used here to represent Americans. This and other Shishi Pictorials were a uniquely collective creation by Canton-Hong Kong intellectuals responding to the 1905 Anti-American Boycott Movement. One populist pictorial showed the Tao Tao Ju restaurant, which still exists today and carried the signified ‘don’t use American flour’ and claimed that if you did you’d be betraying your ancestors.

Xin explained how the pictorial use of caricatures (with Cantonese captions) reinforced the boycott. Yet, she claimed, the pictorials failed to develop into an independent, questioning media – as they were ultimately elite-led. In the Q&A, Xin explained that the pictorials were shown and circulated in marketplaces. When asked, she clarified that the protest was against the US Chinese Exclusion Act 1882 – which prohibited all Chinese migrant labour – and which led to ill treatment of the Chinese in America. Xin closed by emphasising the pictorials’ visceral message: Cantons were making their blood dirty by eating American food, which was seen as a humiliation.

Last was James Rodgers (City, University of London) who gave a richly archival account of British press reporting of the Russian Revolution of February 1917. He highlighted descriptions of the fog descending on Petrograd as being metaphorical of restricted information. The Manchester Guardian reported that British journalists’ first duty was to assure the public that “Russia is all right” as an ally and fighter. Rodgers explained how much coverage was speculative: as well as a dearth of political or diplomatic links, journalists in Russia were forbidden from contacting illegal social democrat or socialist organisations. Furthermore, Lord Northcliffe, owner of the Daily Mail, Daily Mirror and The Times was extremely patriotic and self-important, unsurprising given he owned 40-45% of the circulating British press in 1914, and specifically saw himself as serving the anti-Bolshevik cause.

Rodgers described the Daily Mail and Financial Times’ outraged coverage of looting of a baker’s shop in March 1917: the latter described it as constituting ‘revolution in the truest sense of the word’. Regiments were subject to mutiny; soldiers refused to fire on looters, slayed officers and joined the insurgency. However, right-wing papers thought the Bolsheviks couldn’t last; wiser exceptions included the American journalist Marguerite Harrison who was only allowed to go to Russia as a spy. In the Q&A, it was explained that the Times didn’t have a correspondent based in the Soviet Union until the 1940s.

Next, the delegates made their leisurely progress to the IAMHIST AGM Meeting, presided over by new President Leen Engelen. Then, Llewella Chapman chaired the marathon Closing Plenary Roundtable session: an enthralling discussion of ‘The Media, the archive and power’, with Sian Barber, Lawrence Napper (King’s College London) and Ciara Chambers (University College Cork).

Lawrence Napper, Sian Barber and Ciara Chambers. Courtesy of Paul Lesch

This concerned the aesthetics and historical ethics of the Peter Jackson-directed First World War film, They Shall Not Grow Old (2018). Judging by the mood in the room, it was clear that Jackson is not going to be awarded a lifetime’s IAMHIST membership any time soon…!

Listening to an excerpt of Peter Jackson being interviewed on They Shall Not Grow Old. Courtesy of Paul Lesch

Lawrence Napper, who had written a critical IAMHIST blog piece, claimed TSNGO speaks troublingly of the archive’s relationship towards power, using testimony from Imperial War Museum archivists linked to the project. He was critical of how the IWM had allowed Jackson to ‘modernise’ the footage and noted their powerlessness against his false claims he was given footage in an abject physical state. With exasperated indignation, he criticised Jackson’s ‘insane’ argument that it was ‘made at the wrong speed’, while castigating how he unethically colourized it. He linked this to the marketing people’s false fantasy of young people being resistant to monochrome. He also noted how the “pre”-images were digitally made to look awful: Jackson deliberately ran the material at the wrong speed, to support his self-promotion as having visually ‘improved’ it. Furthermore, Napper emphasised that Jackson did not credit any of the original cameramen: an unethical erasure of their contributions.

Barber began by noting just how little consideration those behind They Shall Not Grow Old gave to ethical questions regarding its use of graphic material. Its presentation of mutilation and trench-foot close-up and in colour meant the BBFC gave it a 15, in contrast to the PG-rated centenary reissue of The Battle of the Somme. She highlighted how it displays real dead bodies, yet styles itself not as a documentary but as a feature film. Barber also mentioned the earthy comic innuendo in an old song used over the end-credits; the BBFC noted its brothel references in its report. All of which amounted to Jackson excluding a younger audience.

Chambers, whose introduction mentioned her work on the book and TV series Ireland in the Newsreels (2017), began by comparing side-by-side sequences from The North and South at the Front (1916) and They Shall Not Grow Old. This former was made just after the Easter Rising and aimed to quell fears of an Irish insurgency via its constructed fiction of northern and southern Irish soldiers fighting together for the war effort. She referred to TSNGO as a missed opportunity in how it had pilfered this footage – unnoticed until she herself spotted it. Similar to other recent archival ‘compilation essay films’, it had repurposed and problematically de-contextualised old footage.

Opening the debate to the floor. Courtesy of Paul Lesch

The to-and-fro began with Napper discussing the ‘flattening’ of archival material, noting BBC documentarians’ accretion and repetition of the same stories about the past. Enlarging on Barber’s claim that TSNGO was ‘sensationalist’, Tobias Hochscherf contended that TSNGO reaffirms an “Us and Them” narrative of the British against the Germans: solely humanising the British troops and not using any German footage. Napper noted that Jackson also chose not to represent ethnically diverse Commonwealth troops who fought in the war.

James Chapman added that the troops were watching themselves in black and white, when they would have seen screenings: many troops involved in fighting the Battle of the Somme saw the 1916 film within days or weeks and received it as immediate, raw and lifelike. Moreover, Chambers likened Jackson’s film as akin to ‘a Chamber of Horrors’: as avoided in 1916 when The Battle of the Somme was not shown in public cinemas. Here, Llewella Chapman noted Jackson’s subjective, unhistorical inclusion of a closing dedication to his grandfather. Chambers stressed how archives’ ethical considerations are usually overridden by the economic and institutional context. Hochscherf highlighted that PJ’s private enterprise exploited publicly paid people: an intensely problematic abuse of their time, resources and access.

Next, it was questioned how the film and accompanying information ‘packs’ sent out to schools were used; Barber highlighted the problem of it being positioned as a ‘definitive account’, i.e. implying: this is all you need. Napper asked ‘where the money was going from the DVD sales?’ No-one seemed to know. Sheldon Hall noted its success in Sheffield with extra showings to full screens. Many noted that non-academic ‘civilians’ liked it. Exasperatedly, Napper claimed not to understand how people can’t see something weird was being done with those faces. Even Mark Kermode and Ian Christie favoured it, with only Jonathan Romney and Pamela Hutchinson joining him in opposition. Llewella Chapman pointed out that Hutchinson’s thoughtful piece received a nastily gender-fixated online kickback. Napper and Bowles agreed on the problematic “truthiness” of much discourse around the film; Napper stressed that TBOTS was primarily authentic footage, while drily emphasising the absurdity in PJ’s use of artists’ impressions for certain backgrounds.

Lastly, Northumbria’s Thomas Watson raised the salient West of Memphis (2012), which Jackson co-produced: dramatizing an infamous 1990s Arkansas child murder case. Watson argued that TSNGO’s ‘sensationalism’ may be a logical aesthetic development within the Jackson oeuvre; this earlier film was killer-centric, eliding the context and lives of those murdered. Napper finished the Conference by echoing earlier Conference contributions from James Chapman, Stewart and Smyth: the archives should beware of ‘collaboration’ with the powerful, as the Imperial War Museum’s reputation has suffered via its dalliance with a self-promoting auteur.

Such a Conference gives you the chance to meet people from far and wide; those I spoke to whose papers I sadly missed included Audrey Hostettler (University of Lausanne), who was focusing on educational film and progressive education in interwar Switzerland and Nicholas F. Iwokwagh (Federal University of Technology, Minna) whose conference topic was discrimination in Nigerian media discourses that marginalise and exclude the ‘girl-child’ as a social group. I also spoke to Brian Neve (West of England) about Joseph Losey, Elia Kazan and Blacklist era Hollywood, Barbara Sadler (Sunderland) about ITV logos across time and how they have been markers of change and struggle at ITV. It was interesting also to hear from Holly Chard (Brighton), with whom I discussed 1980s-90s American wrestling; her paper concerning Hollywood’s first female studio heads, Sherry Lansing and Dawn Steel sounded like a fascinating complement to J.E. Smyth’s standout Keynote lecture.

I also spoke to Steven Barclay (University of Westminster) about Scene (BBC, 1968-2007), a long-running series of issue-based dramas and documentaries for youth and his research on BBC Schools’ output; which peaked in the late 1970s. I have strong memories of my primary school days in Sunderland in the early 1990s where teachers would show and act as mediators for productions such as Look and Read (BBC, 1967-2004) and the seminal dramatized history series How We Used to Live (ITV/C4, 1968-2002). He noted that the 1960s was the apex of unity between broadcasters and the education system, with the Open University’s television output the final product of this era; in the 1980s, the government exerted greater control over education and educational broadcasting. I also met Ene Selart (Tartu University, Estonia) who told me that there wasn’t evidence of direct censorship by the Interior Ministry of Russia in Estonia during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5, though there may have been self-censorship in soldiers’ letters home. She noted that showed a reverence for the opposing Japanese soldiers’ fighting ability and certainly no derogatory language about them, though they are still described as the ‘enemy’.

This Conference was a tremendous success, thoroughly enlightening to someone like myself who had little grounding in journalistic or media history. It was also gratifyingly empirical in approach for a stats nerd such as myself. Many papers spoke of malign continuities across time: the media and politicians too rarely challenging each other to do better, but seeking transient gains. For example, Maartens and Hochscherf strongly argued against the cultural embedding of militarism; Petley and Usher gave critical histories of press partisanship. IAMHIST speakers explained in their variety of case studies how power is often concentrated in the hands of homogenising forces, whether academic auteur theorists, press barons, propaganda units or self-advancing directors. Alongside political pluralism, the need for intellectual pluralism rang out from Smyth’s standout Keynote, which made me seriously question my underlying assumptions about film history.

Conference delegates. Courtesy of Paul Lesch


Tom May is a Postgraduate Researcher at Northumbria University, who has completed year 1 of his PhD project, which is an interpretive history of the strand of one-off dramas Play for Today (BBC1, 1970-84).


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

Working with Oral Sources in media history: A personal view

Nicholas J. Cull, University of Southern California (USC)

15 July 2019


The IAMHIST Blog to date has considered issues around study in specific archives and particular kinds of media evidence.  This post concerns a different kind of evidence which I’ve found to be simultaneously the most rewarding even as it is also the most fragile and fallible: oral sources.  This post is not offered as a how-to manual but rather as a frank other-view of my experience, allowing me to reflect on my own practice and share some of the things I’ve learned since first including the method in my research work in 1985.  I do not restrict myself to oral sources.  My research in media history has used oral sources together with written archives and the usual audio visual materials of our field as part of a multifaceted approach.

For me, as I expect for most people, oral sources were my first source.  As a child I was drawn to history through long conversations about the past with my parents and grandparents which often revealed a fascinating divergence from the received wisdom of mainstream media.  At secondary school I did a short media history project on the social history of cinema going in the locality where I grew up, mixing material from documents with interviews.  As an undergraduate in International History at University of Leeds it seemed logical to use a similar approach for my bachelor’s dissertation, which examined the career of Lord Halifax as the Churchill government’s wartime ambassador to Washington DC.  My undergraduate supervisor – diplomatic historian David Dilks – was a particular enthusiast for the value and ‘fun’ of engaging directly with survivors of Whitehall.  I started by comparing Who’s Who and the old diplomatic list and mailing the remaining diplomats from the embassy, forty years on from their service.  To my surprise found a number of people still alive and both willing and able to speak about their services.  The experience was wholly positive.  I found the cross generational dynamic between a much older person and a young scholar to be a natural once which was conducive not only to a frank recollection and helpful direction but also to further study.  My interviewees always recommended further people or further written sources to help.  Memorable witnesses at this stage included the great philosopher (and wartime opinion analyst) Sir Isaiah Berlin and the retired head of the British Foreign Office, Lord Inchyra.  That experience established oral sources as part of my standard way of operating.  It was central to my PhD thesis, first book, and all subsequent projects.  Over the years I’ve done interviews with a rich galaxy of sources including diplomats, filmmakers, journalists, politicians, soldiers and spies, in the US, UK, Canada, South Africa and points between to build up a picture of what would now be called public diplomacy in action.

Even when the center of gravity of a project is archival I have learned that it is worth pursuing contact with survivors of the period or events.  The different kinds of sources support each other.  The archives direct me to interesting people and some of my most helpful written sources were obtained as a result of interviews.  Every now and again an interviewee pulled out a dusty old suitcase and produced their late husband’s diary or a sheaf of photographs; regularly an interviewee alluded to a newspaper story, film or other source they considered influential and worth examining.  The process of repeating my ideas about the story in question and running them multiple survivors becomes an almost imperceptible process of honing and polishing, with each idea becoming like a pebble rubbed smooth through circulation in wave upon wave, hour upon hour of conversation.

I found that it is important not to prejudge who will be useful and who will not.  One of my most important witnesses for my PhD work was Janet Murrow, widow of the legendary CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow who was introduced to me by the veteran BBC broadcaster Leonard Miall.  Some historians would have considered her perspective on media coverage of the London Blitz to be a low priority but not only did she offer a unique view of journalists’ living conditions during the Blitz, and the day to day stresses of that time, she proved to be a person of undiminished authority within the network of surviving Murrow-era journalists who was happy to allow me to use her name in writing to some half dozen of her husband’s colleagues including such legends in their own right as Walter Cronkite, who all proved happy to help too.  I owe her much.

In the process of integrating oral sources into my work I have certainly had to learn the limits of oral testimony. It was of greatest value not as a substitute for written or audio visual sources but as a supplement to it.  It provided an added dimension: adding color to a picture or perhaps flesh to a skeleton.  When researching a workplace like the British Information Services office in New York or the National Film Board of Canada it certainly helped to have insight into the relationships within that environment.  Who was hated; who was loved; what morale was (or recalled as being) at a particular moment or during the creation of a particular media text.   It was always especially fascinating to learn of the humdrum realities behind a choice in a propaganda documentary that I’d assumed to be aesthetic or artistic.  Sometimes the United States Information Agency (USIA) shot a documentary film in black and white because they didn’t have a budget for color.

I discovered sometimes the oral source up-turned the meaning of a document or audio-visual text.  I was fascinated, for example, by a story I’d seen in the March of Time newsreel about an apparently anti-war organization launched in 1936 by Princeton University students called ‘Veterans of Future Wars’.  When based on campus as a visiting fellow in 1989 I managed to track down a founder member, but his account of the organization was not what I expected.  I had understood that the group members were motivated by pacifism, ironically demanding war bonuses while they were still alive to enjoy them.  His account – in contrast — emphasized the way in which the group was not so much protesting the next war from a position of its future victims as much as mocking the survivors of the former war (who had in 1935 demanded early payment of the promised war bonus scheduled for 1945) as representatives of a privileged elite who were stuck with the bill.  The student’s salute was an ‘itchy palm’ outstretched in the direction of DC appealing for taxpayer money.  Even more cynically the prompt for creating the movement was not simply a prank or satire but to create a story on campus so that the stringer for the New York Times could earn a few extra bucks after a slow semester.  The same newsreel clip – and student politics in the ‘ivy league’ — suddenly looked very different.

My interviews have tended to follow a fairly lose format.  A lot of work is done in the letter requesting the interview.  This letter (or in recent years email) should succinctly communicate the nature of the project, one’s home institution and clearly reference either the person who suggested contacting them or the mechanism by which you obtained their name.  It is a little creepy for a recipient to be guessing how you came to contact them or what your purpose might be.

My next stage is then to prepare by reading or viewing as much as I can about the interviewee so I am familiar at a minimum with any memoir they might have written, with their artistic output or with major interviews about the subject.  This helps me to ensure that I am informed and am steering the interviewee to fresh territory rather than just dropping a coin in the slot to hear a much rehearsed story told one more time.  It can be a nerve-racking process.  I have a recurring nightmare in which I realize I forgot that Sir Winston Churchill was still alive and am due to meet him without having prepared properly.  I wake in a cold sweat from that one!  If something comes up which you don’t understand or recognize, perhaps a technical term or a name, it is fine to stop or double back to that point to clarify.  It can help the interviewee to match their account to your understanding of the event or the place or process in which they were involved.  I am a great believer in the power of a follow up request for detail to help the interviewee unlock further levels of recollection.  I once asked the deputy director of USIA what he was eating for breakfast when a journalist friend leaked news to him of the up-coming Bay of Pigs invasion.  I wish I’d asked the African-American public diplomat John Twitty exact which spirituals he’d sung in Nigeria when an audience demanded a musical prelude to his planned lecture on the Apollo space program.

I have found that it is helpful to agree at the outset how long the interview will be, so I don’t feel compelled to hurry towards a soundbite to justify the train fare.  I also think it helps to establish whether or not you hope to quote the person, which is to say, are they ‘on the record,’ ‘on background’ or on ‘deep background’.   If ‘on the record’ everything can be quoted, if ‘on background’ the substance can be quoted but not attributed and on ‘deep background’ neither quoted or attributed but it can be acted on in looking for further sources.  A good off the record tip can guide future research and sometimes be proven by archive material without any mention of the help that go the scholar to that point.

My first step is always to explain exactly what my project is as succinctly as possible.  If someone has agreed to be interviewed they generally want to help you and explaining the nature of your interest will promote efficient communication and avoid a practiced or generic response.  I find it helpful to have a skeleton script of what I want to know, sometimes asking about broad issues like turning points, sometimes specific people, places or events.  Like many interviewers I sometimes find that it helps to ask about something commonplace, like a work place or location rather than jumping in with a big historical conundrum or controversy.

Some of my interlocutors have been more comfortable talking over food.  A number have smoked throughout our conversation.  Trust me – if the likes of Pik Botha asks you if you mind if they smoke, the answer is ‘feel free…’ Drinks have most often come at the end and are doubtless a seal on the feeling of ‘being on the same page’ with the events in question.

My style as an interviewer is to create a space for testimony rather than badger my interlocutors.  I would ask ‘help me understand how…’ rather than ‘how can you justify…’  An interviewer dealing with controversial matters like crime or prejudice will have to come to their own position on allowing their own judgement to be known.  For my part I have looked for areas of shared experience or outlook to build rapport with a subject early on and held back issues likely to be divisive or controversial till later in the interview lest they prematurely end things.  I have found it useful to guide witnesses away from stories that they have told a hundred times before.  Interviewing Alger Hiss, convicted of perjury for denying that he spied for the Soviet Union, I got very interesting material by asking him his opinion on cases OTHER than his own.  I began that conversation by saying quite honestly I was convinced of his innocence, but by the end of our talk he had told me enough to convince me that that if he hadn’t actually spied for Moscow he certainly believed that that would be the morally justifiable course to take.  I have found it rare that interviewees ask me point blank what I think of an incident or personality to which they were connected and have never felt it wise or necessary to lie.  That said, I have sometimes chosen my words carefully.   When an old anti-Communist witch-hunter asked me point blank what I thought about Senator Joseph McCarthy I thought it wise to answer tactfully that anti-Communism was too important an issue to be trusted to a person like that.

When I began interviewing in 1985 an early witness asked me not to bring a recording device and so I for some years I only took notes in long-hand, pausing and drawing attention to my writing from time to time to confirm a thought or statement.  I’ve found that the best interviews develop as a kind of co-creation where the interviewer is checking back that they have understood correctly, sometimes agreeing at that moment what a final quote or sound bite might be.   I would type up an account of the interview at the end of each day, which extra impressions about manner or environment or exact words used were fresh in my mind.   From 1995 or so I would bring a tape recorder to all interviews with senior figures.  Now I bring a digital recorder to everything.  I never use only a recorder just in case the device fails.  I have never attempted to film an interview as I think this adds another level of concern or self-consciousness for the interviewee.  I have found that sometimes in mid-interview a subject might ask me to turn off the recorder for a particularly sensitive part of the interview or conversely ask me to stop taking notes.  I am happy to oblige.  Strangely perhaps, I have never been asked to cease both.

I have found that using the same skeleton structure of questions with multiple witnesses can bring interesting results, allowing directly comparative answers that can clearly point up the ways in which individual perspective is subjective and memory is partial.  I’ve found asking witnesses to identify a turning point in a historical process to be an especially fertile avenue.  It can be fascinating to note the informal methods used to fix a date in a stream of recollections: ‘that would be around the time that X happened’ or ‘soon after Y happened.’  In fact, the use of a particular event in fixing the date has served as an excellent indicator of the salience of the event, which is of its own value.

Thinking about media history specifically I’ve found it helpful to speak to technicians ‘in the trenches’ as well as star ‘auteurs’.  Documentary film makers and radio journalists have proven especially helpful in part because they haven’t had the same exposure to scholars as fiction film makers or TV journalists.  Interviews with fiction film makers have been some of the most jaded and least revealing.  They have been asked it all before.  It is, however, an amazing experience to ask a question of an artist which is wholly new and unexpected to them and which triggers a moment of self-revelation or a new insight on their part.    Sometimes showing a filmmaker one of the documents you’ve found can be a revelation to them.  The great American government filmmaker Bruce Herschensohn was stunned when I showed him a letter Jackie Kennedy had written in the days following her husband’s murder in which she mentioned that she and the President’s father had viewed Herschensohn’s films in order to feel close to JFK once more.  It seemed all the more appropriate that Herschensohn had been commissioned by USIA to create the president’s official obituary film.

My dealings with sources are not always limited to an hour.  The experience of sharing an interest in a historical moment or experience can be powerful and some witnesses have initiated multiple visits and many conversations and become genuine friends.  To be honest, I have sometimes been criticized for becoming too friendly with my sources.  The criticism has some merit.  One can easily take on the prejudice or institutional perspective of ones sources, written or oral, even without realizing it.  When working on the history of Voice of America radio I was introduced to a succession of veterans of the service who styled themselves the ROMEOs (an acronym for Retired Old Men Eating Out).  I found an easy rapport with them and knew my interest in their careers provided a welcome external validation.   In this process I missed the extent to which the network was essentially masculine and skewed my account of VOA away from a female experience.  This was a significant omission given that the Voice was cited in a massive anti-discrimination class action law suit called the Hartman case.  My ultimate take-away from this is that a researcher must consider how exhilarating the process of being passed from one interviewee to another can skew perspective, and maybe seek additional witnesses as a corrective.  Yet the most carefully constructed interview program can be skewed.  Ultimately we will always need others to identify our biases for us and the corrective may not come from a supervisor or a peer reviewer but from a critic of the published text.  Ouch.  Despite the danger of human contact skewing the work, I feel that can happen with any set of sources.  As with the stock market it pays to have a diverse portfolio!  I have found my emphasis on oral work has helped me to remain aware of the subjective nature of my research and the way in which scholars are, like the oral sources, mortal prisoners of a flow of time.  Knowing that my sources will not last forever has at some points given my work an urgency that an exclusively archive-based project would not have had.  Needless to say the eventual loss of witnesses is a sad reality of the work – some deaths have been considerable blows — but one feels a sense of pride when one was part of their leaving something more of their story behind.

If you are going to bring oral sources into your work it is important to check your institution’s ground rules.  Some regard oral sources as a form of ‘human subject’ work and require formal preparations and legal disclaimers for participants.  Others have no formal requirements.  It is important to ensure you are in compliance.  Some publishers – including one of my own, Palgrave – will only allow an oral source to be quoted if they have a waiver signed by that source.  This can cause problems if the source has died since the interview, which is not uncommon when one is interviewing people because of their historical value who necessarily are much nearer their end than their beginning.  In one case I was able to get round the problem only by using the quote in a blog post and then citing the blog as my source rather than the interview.

One final rule I have is always to make a point of writing to thank my interlocutors.  It helps for them to know that their time has been appreciated and I would hate to think that my neglect closed them off as a source for future historians.


Nicholas J. Cull is a Professor in the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.  He is president of IAMHIST.  His archive-based study of Meader’s First Family  and the White House reaction appeared as ‘No Laughing Matter: Vaughn Meader, the Kennedy Administration and Presidential Impersonation on the radio’ The Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 17, No. 3, August 1997, pp. 383-400


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

 


 

  • Archives