Tuesday, July 29, 2014

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'Narrative'

A response to the comments of Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn 

Carrie Twomey with her second piece taking Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn to task over his comments in a recent WGBH radio interview.

Professional Public Relations Spokesperson Jack Dunn complains that Boston College’s “narrative” hasn’t been able to gain any traction with the media, and he doesn’t understand why. This isn’t the first time he has registered this complaint. The problem explains itself, though, doesn’t it?

Boston College’s handling of the subpoenaing of the Belfast Project oral history archives is not a “narrative”. The subpoenas are a real event in real people’s lives that have a very real, continuing, and frightening impact. What has happened is not a matter of “spin”, and that is where Boston College’s approach has failed the institution, the research and researchers, and the wider field of historical study in general. It is where powerful institutions always fail: when the instinct to protect an image overrides the morality of protecting what is really important – people, principle, integrity. 

Kevin Cullen’s work in the Boston Globe shows why Boston College’s “narrative” fails. Journalists, like historians, seek to get to the truth of things, via investigation, first-hand information, sources, and evidence. PR men, like Dunn, seek to skew perception via spin, guff, sleight-of-hand, and the assumption that they will never be challenged. Kevin Cullen, unlike anyone at Boston College, actually came to Ireland to speak to people involved with the project. He went to Belfast. He spent hours in our kitchen going over every aspect of the case he could think of. He is not the only reporter to have done this. 

Boston College’s Irish Institute, based in Dublin, is about 30 minutes down the road from our home, and a couple hours from Belfast. Not one representative from Boston College has appeared. I flew from Ireland to Boston to attend court hearings, one of which was held on the Boston College campus. No one from Boston College spoke with me, and when I approached Jack Dunn after the hearing he literally turned his back and refused even to acknowledge me. Instead of being able to introduce myself, and arrange to meet with him and the College administration while I was in Boston, I was escorted out of the building by security. In tears of frustration I shouted at his receding back that Boston College were cowards. 

Had Boston College really been interested in defending the oral history archives to the best of their abilities, I suspect we would have been treated quite differently. I doubt I would have been left to cold call Congress members on my own initiative and meet with Senate staff on my own, as I did. The consistent feedback I received from Washington DC – whether it was from the Foreign Relations Committee, the State Department, or Congress – was very different from the “narrative” presented by Jack Dunn in his interview with WGBH. Boston College was not to the fore in any political activity or lobbying to protect the archives; in fact they were conspicuous by their absence.

I would have loved to work with Boston College on the issue, as I believe we would have been stronger and more effective working together, especially with Boston College’s resources. As it was, everything we did was on our own, without any support whatsoever from the College. What has been protected has been hard fought and won by shaming Boston College into action they did not want to undertake, and still begrudge. 

That may not be Mr Dunn’s “narrative” – but it is the truth. And those that take the time and make the effort to investigate the case of the Boston College subpoenas know the difference.

1 comments :

Jack Conway said...

Carrie - I'm an American cultural anthropologist who has published an interview with a living former IRA volunteer in a scholarly journal and I just wanted to offer a word of support for your views. Boston College is out of line and has been since it became clear they were going to scurry at the first sign of pressure.

The Oral History project was an irreplaceable resource for historians and anyone interested in what really happened during the Troubles. I had the honor of interviewing Brendan Hughes in 1998 and 1999 and there is simply no way to tell the story of the Troubles in Belfast without his version of events. Not only was he a central figure but the man oozed honesty and integrity. The same with David Ervine who I also had the privilege to interview.

When I read about your travails I'm ashamed to be an American academic. As an expert in the study of culture I can assure you this isn't a case of cultural differences so much as a simple issue of right and wrong. I have respect for the reconciliation scholarship dominating the academic narrative about the Troubles these days, but at some point the search for the truth will return as top priority. At that point there will be great regret over the moral cowardice of Boston College.