Veteran Northern Ireland journalist and broadcaster, Martin Dillon – who first broke the story of the IRA Disappeared in his 1988 book ‘The Dirty War‘ – takes Patrick Radden Keefe to task for his claim that his recent bestselling book ‘Say Nothing‘, recently nominated for the George Orwell prize for political writing, was based ‘chiefly on his own reporting’:
Lately a new wave of investigative journalists/writers has entered the publishing world with well-written books based on “original reporting.” Readers, critics and publishers rarely challenge such claims by inquiring how much of the reporting is “original” and how much is rooted in previously published material. How many of these writers, for instance, based their books on their own investigative work, risking their lives in the process?
Nowadays, information is readily accessible by the click of a button. The Internet provides thousands of references on any topic which is a great thing if your aim it to gather tons of information on a topic. Academics often mine already published books, but they acknowledge their sources by painstakingly documenting references to original material in the accepted footnotes style.
Not so these new writers. Instead, they skillfully weave original material of other writers into narratives, grudgingly recognizing in a Notes or References section at the end of their books their use of original works. They rarely explain the exact significance of the material they incorporated, yet extensive references in a section at the back of their books may testify to how much they relied on the writings of others.
Their technique of avoiding footnotes is alarming and unacceptable.
The aim one might conclude is to produce a clean manuscript, leaving the impression that these writers did not rely on anything but their original reporting. Writers employing this technique will argue that they credited other writers in their Notes at the back of their books. Most readers are unlikely to spend time constantly referring to back Notes to find and understand links and relevance between references to other works and an author’s narrative.
A writer who used the Notes technique – fifty-five pages of them- is journalist/writer Patrick Raddon Keefe in his book – Say Nothing….A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland. It climbed steadily to the top of the best-selling list and was showered with praise by critics as “an epic account of Northern Ireland’s bloody sectarian conflict”.
One is left wondering how much American critics really know about the Troubles to deliver such overreaching praise. National Public Radio, which one might expect to know better, described the book as a “masterful history of the Troubles”. There have been many masterful histories of the Troubles, but none was written by Mr. Radden Keefe.
Instead, they were authored by the well-known writers whom Mr. Keefe described at the back of his book as “long time chroniclers “of the Northern Ireland conflict. He admits in his Notes section that he “incorporated the ground-breaking works” of such writers as Tim Pat Coogan, Martin Dillon, Mark Urban, Ed Moloney, Henry McDonald, Suzanne Breen, Malachi O’Doherty, Peter Taylor, Richard English, Allison Morris, David McKittrick and Susan McKay, but insists his book is “based chiefly on my own reporting”.
It leaves the reader to wonder how much exactly is based on his “original reporting.” And did he really have permission to “incorporate” the works of those above mentioned writers so extensively into his book? He did not have, nor did he seek my permission. He just emailed me once, offering to buy me lunch in New York to “swap notes.” That never happened.
I believe that claims by any writer of “original reporting” have to be weighed against material already available in previously published works. I was intrigued how he omitted to credit the groundbreaking work of other writers within his narrative. For example, in my book “The Dirty War,” published back in 1988, I was the first person to expose the fact that the IRA was abducting, interrogating and secretly burying people, mainly its own members.
I even named one victim, a young man whose family was unaware that he had been abducted, secretly killed and buried in a remote part of the Irish countryside.
My revelations about secret burials became known in the media as the story of the Disappeared. There is no recognition by Keefe in his story, or in a New Yorker article he published, that I broke the story of the Disappeared three decades before he began writing specifically about it with his focus on the tragic story of Jean McConville, a central character in his narrative.
My name does not appear anywhere in the narrative, but there are extensive references to my work listed in his Notes section. This is just one example that struck me as a failure by Mr. Radden Keefe to give proper recognition to the “long time chroniclers.” It is up to the critics to be more circumspect before defining Mr. Radden Keefe’s book as a “masterful history of the Troubles” based on his original reporting.
I have been a professor for the last 15 years. The internet, for all of it’s usefulness, has made plagiarism and otherwise murky academic referencing widespread. I enjoyed Mr. Madden Keefe’s book, but anyone with even a cursory knowledge of contemporary Irish history would recognize that he depended heavily on the work of others. He skates too fine a line between claiming “original writing” and specious references and intentionally misleading citations. He tells an important story in his book, but intellectual honesty, historical accuracy, and respect for those who lived through those times demand that a writer convey those narratives without even a hint of disrepute.