The memory of a nation in a digital world

Act quickly or our intellectual record will disappear down a black hole.

It is an irony of the digital age that at a time when we are used to having easy access to seemingly endless information and knowledge, so much of it is disappearing into a digital black hole. For 450 years the concept of legal deposit has helped to preserve the nation’s intellectual record. The requirement for publishers and distributors to send one copy of anything they publish in print to the British Library has been vital in building up a collection which now contains some 150 million items. 

In 2003 the Legal Deposit Libraries Act extended the same principle to cover digital content. However, nine years later we are still waiting for the legislation to be implemented. We have just come to the end of the third consultation on new regulations in just two years. While all the talking and redrafting has continued, vast amounts of our digital heritage have disappeared for ever.

People’s thoughts and experiences are increasingly recorded on websites, blogs, Tweets and other social media rather than in the diaries and letters which have survived from the past. Given the ease with which websites can be updated the lifespan of anything that is written online is considerably shorter than the printed word. 

The oldest example of writing can be found on clay tablets that are over 5,000 years old. We recently acquired the oldest surviving European book, the St Cuthbert Gospel, which is over 1,300 years old. The average life expectancy of a webpage is less than 75 days.

The London 2012 Olympics is generating a great deal of comment and discussion. Much of the story is being told through the websites of sports associations, cultural organisations and online contributions from the general public. While we have been waiting for the new legislation to be implemented we have done what we can to save as much of our digital memory about big stories and events such as the Olympics. This has meant working with publishers to make voluntary agreements to preserve as much digital material as possible. However, until the legislation is implemented the majority of these websites cannot be legally captured and preserved.

It has been estimated that less that 1 per cent of all online activity related to the London Olympics will be saved. Future generations of researchers will also search in vain for much of the reaction to major events such as the 7/7 bombings, the 2009 Parliamentary expenses scandal and the London riots. 

A lot of what appears online may appear very trivial and unimportant. However, we have learnt that it is not possible for any generation to accurately predict what those who come after us will deem to be important. Sometimes what seems insignificant or even goes unnoticed proves to be the gems unearthed by later researchers. Who would have thought that the diary of a young Dutch girl would have become so important? However, if Anne Frank’s thoughts had been kept as a blog or Tweeted rather than written down in a journal, what are the chances that we would still be able to read them today?

It would also be ironic if the web pages and blogs of our media-savvy political leaders were washed away almost as quickly as the ink on Thomas Cromwell’s letters took to dry. Despite the ease with which we can record and communicate our thoughts today, the historians and novelists of the future may struggle to find much of this material and therefore be unable to gain the same insight into today’s Thomas Cromwells.

It is a matter of great regret that it will never be possible to plug the gap in our understanding of UK opinion about major social and cultural issues at the very beginning of the digital age. Will academics in the future feel the same sense of loss about some of this material that we feel today about the missing works of Ancient Greece’s greatest writers and thinkers?

The UK has been in the slow lane when it comes to preserving digital material. Non-print legal deposit is now widespread internationally, including much of Europe, Canada and New Zealand. It is two years since the United States Library of Congress announced that it would be keeping copies of every Tweet. The latest version of the UK Government’s proposed regulations is less than perfect. It would exempt start-ups and micro businesses from depositing offline publications or the need to provide passwords to enable us to harvest their websites.

Given that these businesses account for 80 per cent of publishers, a great deal of information would continue to be lost. The British Library would like to see this exclusion waived completely.  However, the priority now is to implement the legislation without further delay. We must avoid any more of our heritage disappearing forever into the digital black hole and ensure the British Library continues to be this country’s collective memory long into the future.

Dame Lynne Brindley is CEO of the British Library

What are social networking sites doing to our collective memory? (Photo: Getty Images)
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder