Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Boston College caves on oral history interviews

A detailed account here of how Boston College (failed to) handle demands to hand over oral history interviews from its "Belfast Project". This was a series of interviews with former paramilitaries from both sides of the Northern Irish conflict about their experiences, that inevitably involved them discussing illegal acts openly. Naturally the university promised them nine kinds of confidentiality - and caved as soon as the PSNI asked the US department of justice to subpoena the interviews. Some very interesting comments on this blogpost, including one from the project's former director about Boston College's behaviour.

These issues crop up all the time in relation to social research (and journalism, and law, and psychological counselling, and come to that religious confession): depending on the jurisdiction, professionals may or may not have a right to protect their sources / client confidentiality. Where they don't (as in Ireland for journalists) the norm is that their superiors (editors for newspapers) will support them to the hilt - on the straightforward basis that if they don't, the institution's guarantee of confidentiality is worthless and journalism / research / legal representation / counselling / religious confession will become de facto impossible.

University administrations have a professional obligation to do whatever they can to protect research confidentiality, not to mention a moral obligation to support guarantees which are typically required by the institution under ethical procedures.