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Removal of Irish Parliament Debate Videos Sparks Questions: Are We Developing a Distrust of Transcripts?

Woman reading documentThere’s been a story going around the Irish media in the last few days about the removal of footage of political debates from a Web site. I haven’t seen any coverage of it in American media so I wanted to mention it here. My initial knowledge of Ireland’s politics was pretty much nil so forgive me in advance if I bungle any of the players here (and please comment so I can fix.)

From The Journal: Dáil footage reuploaded to Oireachtas website after being taken down:

VIDEO FOOTAGE OF debates from Leinster House prior to 2014 have been reuploaded to the Oireachtas website after being removed.

The footage of Dáil debates, spanning from 1990 to 2014 and which were previously accessible online, were removed from the internet. If someone wanted to access the footage – which is often used by journalists, researchers and academics – they would have had to submit a request to access the footage.

Leinster House, as I understand it, is the seat of Ireland’s Parliament (Oireachtas). The Dáil mentioned in the quote above is the House of Representatives of the Irish Parliament (Dáil Éireann.) (By the way, if you want to dig into all this yourself, http://www.oireachtas.ie/parliament/ is very helpful in getting an overview.)

So here’s what happened as far as I can tell: over twenty years’ worth of footage of debates from the House of Representatives of Ireland’s Parliament was removed from the Parliament’s Web site with what appears to be no notice.

Why? According to an Oireachtas spokesperson the files removed were in the WMV video format which was developed by Microsoft (the Library of Congress has a bunch of technical data here), and some users were  having problems watching the files. The Oireachtas spokesperson noted that transcripts of the debates were still available; only the video was removed.

The abrupt removal caused a firestorm of criticism and questions, the material was returned to the Oireachtas Web site and will apparently remain there for the foreseeable future.

The comments section in The Journal article I’ve linked to above is fascinating. Many commenters noted that the transcripts were still available and therefore the video was not necessary to Oireachtas transparency. Other users noted that it’s far easier to edit a transcript after the fact than video, and that in this age of social media,  a video of a politician saying something has more “punch” than a transcript.

The comments made me start pondering the question: when did the idea of the government editing debate transcripts become less of a “tinfoil hat” theory and more of an actual dangerous concern?

Please note I am not accusing the Oireachtas or any part of the Irish government of editing its transcriptions.

I am noting that we already have examples of governments altering transcripts. A silly example is a Trump Administration press conference transcript saying that he sinks “30-foot putts” when the video of the person making the statement is clearly saying “3-foot putts”. (The official White House transcript, which is over two months old at this point, still contains this error.) Less silly is the case of a prosecutor who altered the transcript of a police interview. And while it’s not exactly a transcript, it is the case that the United States Supreme Court will edit its decisions long after they are issued, a practice it only became transparent about in late 2015.

As rare as these incidents may be, it seems to me that they are valid reasons for concern when a video is removed and all that’s available is a print transcript; online print is far easier to change than online video. (And please don’t @ me about methods researchers are developing to fabricate video – I know about them and I’m running out of Maalox.)

At the moment the videos have been restored and the Dáil Éireann debates are available online. At least one GoFundMe has been started to independently archive the videos outside of Oireachtas though it does not at this writing have donations.

With the ongoing revelations about international interference in elections, “fake news,” and deliberate dissemination of misinformation, I think governments should be especially sensitive to the idea of replacing media which is at the moment difficult to alter (video) with media that it trivial to alter (transcripts.) To do otherwise in our current cultural atmosphere will only provoke suspicion and distrust.

Whaddaya think?

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