source material – the ethical issues

This morning’s lazy wakeup read through the BBC News website over my first coffee (which I do every day, as part of my wake up routine) made me sit up in startlement this morning. The BBC was reporting that The Sun had published a clip of the Queen, as a child, larking around in the garden, with her mother, sister and uncle, and who had, along with her mother and uncle, given the nazi salute. It was in 1933, at the time of the Nazi Party’s rise to power, and she was around six to seven years old.

Regardless of whether The Sun was right to publish this or not, or the public response, as historians, the whole issue – and The Sun‘s approach to it – raises important questions about source material – the the appropriate use of it, and what we, as historians can learn from the incident.

I think the first thing that can be learned – or, perhaps, re-emphasised – is that as historians, we largely deal with source material pertaining to people, and that it is important to consider, when we use that source material, if we are doing so ethically. Journalists work to a different set to criteria (arguably, including ethical standards) but as historians, it should always be asked: are we behaving in a way that is ethical? Certainly my own university, and, I would imagine, most others, have a set of ethical standards, which, as academics, we are bound to comply with. To use an image like this in one’s research, several important things would need to be satisfied, but amongst them must be authenticity and context. While the figures in the video are recognisable and there is no doubt that it is them, every historian must be aware that audio-visual material can always be edited to imply a different story than the original. I remember as a first year undergraduate being shown photographs that showed quite a different impression when viewed one way, than if you viewed them in their original setting. Context is crucial, as is critical questioning of that context. The full context of the video (and its source) is unknown. The Sun itself admits in it’s editorial that it believes the Queen and her sister were ‘larking around’, and, having viewed the video, it is entirely possible that the Queen Mother, seeing the Queen wave to the camera in a way that mimiced, inadvertently, the nazi salute, picked up on that and mockingly gave it as well – and that this was then laughingly joined in with, by the Queen and her uncle, the man who would go on to be Edward VIII (and, if you believe The Sun, a Facist sympathiser). The editorial of The Sun suggests this… but their headline ‘Their Royal Heilnesses’ – does not suggest this at all.

Context is everything.

But, perhaps, more importantly, is the concept of ethical use. All Historians, but particularly historians working with the more recent past, have to remember that the material they use often comes from people. Sometimes, those people are either themselves still living, or people who have close family members still living, and it is important that source material is not used in ways that harm those people. Academic historians conducting this kind of research have to abide by a complex set of ethical rules handed down by their university. This does not necessarily mean that source material like this should not be used – as the Guardian has explained, this video is of genuine historical interest and could be crucial for someone exploring, for example, the social impact in England of the events in Germany in the 1933-39 period. For a historian researching this, how would they ethically deal with the video, so as to use it in their work?

Let’s, for argument’s sake, pretend for a moment that the video is of a middle class, suburban family, with no journalistic sensationalism attached to who they are. In this case, the historian would have a number of options. Assuming the historian knew who they were, and had traced modern day descendents, then he/she could obtain written permission to use a still from the film, perhaps with the faces anonymised. He/She could obtain permission to refer to the film, but the actual film or images from it, not to be included in any written work arising from the project (e.g. a thesis or journal article). Or permission could be refused, and that would be that.

[To demonstrate how scrupulously academic historians abide by the no permission element, there are actually oral histories (that is, people talking on audiotape about their memories, their life experiences) on file at a number of institutions that cannot be transferred to digital media because the original participants have since died, and the original agreement that they signed did not ask for permission for their recordings to be used in a different format or to be made public, e.g. on a website. Although agreements now are including this kind of permission, to allow for different formats/use in future, it doesn’t help those old recordings – since the original particpants have died, nothing can be done except looking after the old tapes as best as possible.]

If – again, for argument’s sake – a social historian was wanting to use this clip, of the Queen and her family, having come across it in the royal archives at Windsor, and it had not been published before, what would they do? Ask permission. Offer anonymisation, as above – it could quite easily be anonymised and presented as a family from “the aristocracy” and still demonstrate the impact that the nazis were having in the west – this was never made public at the time, so in that sense, this is a private family responding to public events, exactly as it would be if it was Mr and Mrs Suburbia, and can be reflected so in any argument – who they were, prescisely, is, to a certain extent, irrelevant. And if it was denied, again, that would be that. End of.

Having said that, now that the material is in the public domain, what now? As ethical researchers, should we shy away from using the material because it was (possibly) obtained and published in ways that are less than ethical?

Here, the answers are less clear. Someone researching the role of the media in affecting the image of the royal family, for example, or the impact of the phone hacking by the News of the World, cannot really ignore material that was less than ethically obtained – it is, after all, the whole point of their research. How, then, as an ethical researcher, can you ethically research these types of question? [and which tips into the field of ‘using unethically obtained data, ethically – and this is a well studied subject – as a simple google will show.]

Perhaps the best way to do it is to take extra care to use source material ethically. Yes, the material is in the public domain, but this does not mean that it has to be used unethically yourself. It would certainly be possible to quote them, reference them (as public domain material), but not use images yourself in your work. You could even try to obtain permission for one or two images to be used – from both the copyright holder AND the person in the photograph, although you may be less than successful at that, as they may fear issues being dragged up again – this is, after all, the basis on which EU citizens have a Right to be Forgotten). But even this is not always possible. Images of people who are dying, for example – the faling man or the falling soldier. How do you behave ethically then?

Sometimes, it may not always be possible to meet the ethical standards as completely as one might wish. Sometimes, there just aren’t any right answers. But I do believe that it is possible to at least personally behave ethically. For example: part of the research ethics standards concern treating people with respect. Even if you don’t have the permissions to use material in your research (and, I freely admit, I do not have any permissions to refer to any of the material I have supplied links to here, although everything is in the public domain) you can write about people with respect. This can be as simple as referring to people correctly, with respect – with their title, instead of their given name. I think most researchers would do this instictively anyway – academic language and the way of thinking as you write – usually does not allow for informalities in which disrespectful references to people might creep into one’s work (at least, that is the case for me).

I think most of all this incident shows that as historians we need to keep thinking about these issues, periodically pull them out, examine them, ask ourselves the difficult questions – and where necessary, adjust the way that we research and write accordingly. Perhaps, in the end, that is the true answer to the question of whether it is ethical to use unethically obtained information – to keep examining, to keep discussing, to recognise that there are always exceptions to the rules, and that utimately, the world around us does not share our ethical standards – but that does not mean that we should be lax ourselves.


3 thoughts on “source material – the ethical issues

  1. Another article on the subject worth reading: – ‘For one thing, technology always skews the result, so that Princess Elizabeth is obliged to do something spectacular with her limbs for the movie camera, while the Brontës are required to look grim for their studio portrait. Richard III’s reconstructed head can’t do anything much except stare, which is probably why his looks still menace. What these visual artefacts can never do is give us context.’


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