Richard Ovenden

Richard Ovenden

Last updated on 16 October 2020

Richard Ovenden OBE is the President of the Digital Preservation Coalition

This article was originally published in the FInancial Times on the Wednesday 14th October and this version can be accessed here

Deep in the stacks of the Bodleian Library in Oxford is a remarkable sheet of paper written sometime in the 1660s. It contains an exchange of private messages between King Charles II and his chief minister, Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon. The document contains the handwriting of the two men alternating, as they play out a tetchy exchange concerning the monarch’s expenses, costs which Clarendon was struggling to contain. ‘I would willingly make a visit to my sister at Tonbridge for a night or two at farthest’ states the King at the top of the sheet, ‘when do you think I can I can best spare the time?’ Clarendon, with an eye to the cost, replies below with a suggestion, adding ‘I suppose you will go with a light trayne’. The king’s answer is simply that ‘I intend to take nothing but my night bag.’ Clarendon is incensed by this provocational understatement: ‘God, you will not go without 40 or 50 horse’. The Royal put down is epic in its haughty brevity: ‘I counte that parte of my night bag’.

The private messages of those in the inner echelons of state affairs today are vastly more ephemeral than those of their seventeenth century predecessors. This sheet of paper found its way into the Bodleian where it can be studied alongside the other ‘State Papers’ formed by Clarendon, but it could easily have been lost or even destroyed. The advent of encrypted communications today which can be readily used via smartphones, leaves the historians of the future with a huge gap. Even more urgently, it leaves the work of officers of the state, whether Her Majesty’s Ministers, senior civil servants, or special advisors, unable to be scrutinised by the public who they are employed to serve.

The Public Records Act of 1958 was intended to serve the British public both now and in the future by preserving records which document ‘the principal policies and actions of the UK central government …’ including ‘records illustrative of the process of developing government policy and legislation’ and/or ‘the structures and decision making process in government.’ The mode of communication has already shifted to the digital realm. The use of these technologies by those involved in the government today is a matter of concern for all members of the public whatever their political persuasion.  They include services like Snapchat and Signal, where messages auto-erase, being designed originally for teenagers not wishing to have their private messages hanging around on their phones to be discovered by parents. Today the communication systems of recalcitrant youths have been adopted by senior government officials and politicians, a trend spotted last year by Dominic Grieve (then a Conservative MP), prompting him to table a Humble Address before the House of Commons on 9 September 2019 seeking ‘all correspondence and other communications (whether formal or informal, in both written and electronic form, including but not limited to messaging services including WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal, Facebook messenger, private email accounts both encrypted and unencrypted, text messaging and iMessage and the use of both official and personal mobile phones) to, from or within the present administration’ for the sake of ‘propriety in government’, and essential to engender trust with the public, something which he pointed out was essential for the proper function of our unwritten constitution.

Whether these messages self-destruct or not, the architects of the 1958 Public Records Act had an eye to the future. The Act itself is ‘format neutral’, leaving these communications in the class of records which must be permanently preserved, not just for the sake of historians 350 years from now to pore over, but for the present public to be able to scrutinise the actions of our elected and paid officials – through the Freedom of Information Act, as they would also fall under the jurisdiction of the Information Commissioner.

These two concerns, addressing both the present and the future, are why - in my capacity as President of the Digital Preservation Coalition - I have written to the Minister for Digital, Culture Media and Sport asking for clarification and reassurance regarding the status of these communications as public records, and asking what arrangements are in place for their preservation, and our access to them. We need our government to be open for both study and scrutiny now, and long into the future.


Richard Ovenden OBE

President, Digital Preservation Coalition, and author of Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack


Click here to read the letter submitted to the Minster for DCMS  

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