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Response to Review no. 133

It is good of the IHR to invite me to review Dr Meisel’s review. (Rushdie and Amis would die for the chance!) I think the review is scrupulously and fairly done, and generous in many respects. CD-ROMs constitute an unfamiliar and perhaps alien genre to many political historians and historians of ideas, but Dr Meisel is not among them. I am pleased that he found the disk easy to use and its search mechanisms powerful. Of course an electronic edition of this kind is as much a collective as an individual creation and the task of realising such functionality depended on the skills of the Electronic Publishing department at Oxford University Press and of the software engineers at OptiMedia.

Dr Meisel does a good deal to place the edition in the context of previous collections of Prime Ministerial speeches and notes the changing nature of political communication over the past couple of centuries. He is right in have done so. If a single concept lay behind the disk, it was that collections of speeches no longer went to the heart of the thing and that it was necessary to extend the remit of such editions to take account of the dominance of television. Surprisingly this had not been before done in Britain, nor even in the US, as far as I am aware. Television is everything in politics and TV broadcasters produce material at a frightening rate. But television archives are not unrestrictedly open to historical researchers (even those of the BBC), and where they are open, the cost of summoning film and tape from the vaults is so high that serious use of the huge volume of material held in these archives is not within reach for most, or many, of us. This disk provides one answer to that problem.

Other answers are going to be needed, however. The budget for this disk was £325,000. Few British politicians will ever achieve the kind of world standing necessary to give an edition of their collected statements the faintest hope of economic viability. Perhaps we should be looking for funds to establish research fellowships or grants to work in the major broadcast archives held by the BBC and ITN. With goodwill from the broadcasters, the sums involved would not be large. The alternative is largely to ignore television in writing the history of the times.

I should add that the impressive BBC and ITN websites will provide part of the solution from the late 1990s onwards, as long as these sites are archived accessibly. The real difficulty lies in getting a grasp on the vast store of television material generated in the forty odd years between the sixties and the end of the century. It would be wrong to suppose that a trip to the BBC Written Archives at Caversham will solve the problem. Caversham holds large numbers of radio transcripts but most of the BBC television material reproduced on the Thatcher disk did not exist in transcript form. ITN ended verbatim transcription of its news output in early 1976.

I have only one explanatory or defensive comment to make on the review. Dr Meisel is mildly critical of my classification of statements by a four-fold grading of ‘importance’, although his comments suggest that he understands the case for it. The feature was mainly intended to ease the path of inexperienced users and of people unfamiliar with (and perhaps fundamentally uninterested in Margaret Thatcher. I designed the search mechanisms with the aim of making the disk of some value to people in a range of disciplines abutting politics, economic policy, and the history of ideas. Thus some material from every phase of MT’s life was classified as seminal so that those with a purely or largely biographical perspective would find adequate material for tracing the development of her ideas. I believe also that some of her earlier speeches and interviews will repay study even by those operating within a more complex conceptual framework. Finally, I was concerned to allow readers to clear out of the way the bulk of frankly minor and trivial material contained on the disk. For many purposes this material would have got in the way. And, as Dr Meisel fairly points out, readers can create their own classification using bookmarks. At every stage in the design of the disk I aimed to give readers the tools to select the material that interested them, rather than to make the selection for them; I aimed to edit with a light rather than a heavy hand. For all sorts of reasons, a complete edition could not have worked on any other basis.