Archive discovery by AHRC leadership fellows hits the headlines
When Dr Sarah Jackson discovered letters in the BT Archive revealing that in 1934 the socialist suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst had lobbied the British government with concerns about phone tapping, she had no idea that it would go on to be a major story featured in The Guardian and on the BBC New website.
The letters addressed the specific case of a suspicious solicitor who had set up a duplicate line to monitor his wife’s conversations with her lover. But Pankhurst also raised broader concerns that the practice could open the door to “improper use by unscrupulous persons”.
“I wasn't sure if the public would be interested, but I happened to be speaking to the AHRC, and Mike Collins (Head of Communications) said: 'this is a great story!'” says Dr Jackson, a Senior Lecturer in English and Creative Writing at Nottingham Trent University. The AHRC produced a press release that was sent out to the media.
It was early December 2018 and many journalists were preoccupied with a key Brexit vote in the House of Commons - but soon the calls started to come in.
“First I was asked to come into the BBC Radio 4 Today programme studio, and then before I knew it I had four back-to-back radio interviews - all before breakfast,” says Dr Jackson.
“Then I had a call to tell me it was on page three of The Guardian and the BBC News website. And then my university press officer phoned and said it had been covered by the Press Association and was in pretty much every local newspaper!
“Fortunately, I had done a one-day media training course through my university, and had broadcast experience as a New Generation Thinker. But this was very different – and more challenging. For example, John Humphrys was using the name of the wrong Pankhurst sister and I had to correct him live on air.”
However, there were some problems Dr Jackson couldn't solve and the Press Association got some important aspects of the story wrong and misquoted her. Many local papers used the PA story as the basis of their own coverage and so the mistakes spread.
“I had to just let that go,” says Dr Jackson. “I know it was their mistake, not mine. The AHRC did try and get the story corrected but in the end there was little they could do.” But despite these hiccups, Dr Jacksons advice is to throw yourself into media work and let your excitement and enthusiasm shine through. “If you are excited by something, very often other people will be as well,” she says.
“The whole thing was a real shot in the dark. I don't talk to the AHRC very often. But if I hadn't, I would have just posted it on my website, and that would have been that.
“But the AHRC really value the fact that public money is being spent on our research, and can be very supportive in helping us communicate to the public what we do.”