Letter: Accuracy sets the Benn diaries apart

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The Independent Online
Sir: In her polemic, Janey Buchan raises serious problems about the accuracy of diaries. All records - diaries, memoirs, unpublished papers and even committee minutes - are subject to bias. Such distortion may be unintended - after all, memories fade and so on. Any primary source needs critical evaluation and cross-checking.

But the implication of Ms Buchan's letter that we should do without published records such as the Benn diaries is bizarre. There is already a paucity of information about the Labour Party and British politics. We should not deprive ourselves of sources without first thoroughly examining them.

In fact, the Benn diaries stand up better than most contemporary records. No doubt there are inaccuracies, and many individuals will be unhappy at the way they are portrayed. But in terms of the substance of argument and debate within Labour, and the way that decisions were reached in the party, they are an impressive and accurate record. Take, for example, economic policy. Benn's account of policy committee meetings between 1979 and 1982 is corroborated by the TUC-Labour Party liaison committee minutes and newspaper reports. His diaries are actually more accurate than NEC minutes because they convey the atmosphere of the meetings - again something that can be corroborated by other accounts. Of course, we should read diaries, like anything else, with care. We should think about the motives of the author and the nature of the intended audiences.

To suggest we should do without such diaries is an attitude that would set back our understanding of what has happened to the Labour Party over the past 20 years. One reason why more is known about Labour than the Conservatives is precisely because sources such as the Benn diaries have been available. Ms Buchan would have us rely on often bland committee minutes, memoirs (many of which are outdated and characterless), and the other titbits filtered out to academics. Scholars face enough obstacles in their work. Surely we can make our own judgements about what is accurate and what is not.

Yours faithfully,