Pulped Fiction: Broometime and the Ethics of Oral History. (Framing Stories and Poetry)

Article excerpt

The publication of Broometime in March 2001 triggered a heated debate in the Australian media about issues of confidentiality, privacy and the rights of authors to publish observations or conversations of a personal nature. (1) The authors, Anne Coombs and Susan Varga, spent nine months living in the Kimberley town of Broome and produced Broometime as `part journal, part documentary' of their experiences and their interpretation of the `Broome scene'. (2) The angry response to the book's publication from Broome residents, who felt maligned or misrepresented in the text and complained that their private conversations had been reproduced without consent, took the authors by surprise. The publisher, Hodder Headline, decided to withdraw Broometime shortly after publication, when Western Australian police raised the possibility that the book may have contravened the Western Australian Evidence Act in two instances by printing details of an indecent assault case. The offending passages were removed and the book was re-issued.

Whilst the process generated huge publicity which undoubtedly improved sales prior to the withdrawal of the book, the saga raises some pertinent issues for oral historians and ethnographers dealing with people's personal lives. Broometime was not written as a scholarly work, and therefore the authors did not have to conform to academic conventions for undertaking research with human subjects. However, the authors' rejection of the criticism levelled at them by Broome residents--`[i]n Broome some people are intensely disappointed in us. We are also intensely disappointed in them' (3)--revealed divergent understandings of what was acceptable practice. A seminar discussion in the Department of History at the University of Western Australia (UWA) on the ethics of oral history, shortly after the publication of Broometime, also revealed a range of positions regarding the rights of an author in relation to the disclosure of private information. (4) How does the historian or social scientist negotiate the ethical minefield laid out before them in the course of research and publication, which is barely visible until the misplaced step has disastrous consequences? Do university regulatory processes adequately protect both subject and researcher? Are there particular issues in cross-cultural research? What implications does the reaction to Broometime have for other researchers who wish to collect oral evidence, especially if they intend to work in the north west of Western Australia in the near future? The lack of consensus from both the seminar discussion and media responses to Broometime demonstrates a need for further debate on the ethical issues relating to the publication of oral evidence.

Universities regulate research undertaken on human subjects by usually requiring researchers to complete an ethics form prior to undertaking their research. The process at UWA is similar to other academic institutions where a genetic form for all disciplines asks for details of the proposed research, including an information sheet on the project for participants and an informed consent form. The lengthy UWA form focuses mainly on medical research in the first instance, and the experience of completing it is normally enough to raise the question of whether a discipline-specific form might not be more appropriate. (5) Jeremy Beckett has raised the same concerns from an anthropological perspective, pointing out that Human Research Ethics Committees (HRECs) often insist on `requirements and restrictions that make it difficult for them [anthropologists] to conduct their research as they have been trained to do, and as their colleagues overseas expect them to do'. (6) He questions whether the process to protect people from exploitation as participants in medical experiments is the same as that required for social science research. Beckett notes that the requirement to submit interview questions and schedules in advance is often contrary to the process of research for the ethnographer who lives among her or his research subjects for extended periods, and asks questions on the basis of observations made. …