Thursday, 26 February 2015

PAS PACHI FOI: The Internal Emails - Milliongate

Topic H, 'Milliongate': The bulk of the pdf we received as a result of my FOI request consists of a series of duplicated emails (somebody's not good at inbox-management) on the affair I dubbed 'milliongate' - the smoke and mirrors surrounding the "millionth find" in the PAS database (a 'Late Roman Bronze' coin from the Seaton Hoard). When sorted out there are 18 of these documents - and apparently nothing in the PAS forum. Taken together, they show above all the PAS attitude to information transparency and how a new member of staff is instructed to ignore requests from the Scheme's audience for information.

The sequence starts off with a brief email from me on 8th September 2014. I asked the PAS a question about the sudden jump in statistics on the database home page that day. The reply could have dealt painlessly with my five queries in two sentences giving all the information requested. This, we now know, is what Dr Drost could have written:
*Paul, This is a recently excavated hoard of Roman coins from Seaton, Devon, yes the number is an estimate, we are still in the process of recording and individually photographing these coins. Please do not discuss this find or use this information until after the press conference on 25 September, Best wishes Vincent Drost*
That is what he could have written, it would have taken him less than a minute. He did not though. What happened instead? Well, that was far more time-consuming and led to the generation of the wadge of documents we received. First, my query was ignored. I wrote again politely seven days later, pointing out additionally that there was a problem with the visibility of previously visible information in the database. [After I mentioned I'd spotted the jump in the database, the PAS for reasons best known to themselves attempted to hide the information].

The reply (Vincent Drost [VD] to PMB Sept 16th 5:21 PM), instead of just answering the queries I had, dismissively dodges them (and, despite it being consulted with two other BM employees, lacks one part of the second sentence). It  does not in any way answer the perfectly reasonable questions I had asked more than a week earlier about the sudden jump in publicly available recorded finds figures. VD was clearly being deliberately evasive. I asked again, about the nature of these 'data' recorded at public expense. VD's response to that third attempt to explain this anomaly was again to ignore the query totally.

In fact, I found out that his original fob-off reply of September 16th contained false information. He denied the data were in the database (when as my original request indicated, everybody could see from the overall total on the database home page that they still were!)  and he said they could not/would not be entered until after the inquest. But the inquest had actually taken place four days before his response. This is not the behaviour we should expect from publicly funded heritage professionals (in Poland for this under the Civil Code and Codex of Administration Procedure, such an employee could expect disciplinary measures). I gave up trying to get a straight answer from this guy, obviously a waste of time.

The PAS database is created with public money. Dr Drost works in the BM, publicly funded, the chair he sits on was paid for with public money, his computer and the programs in it too. The material he is employed to process as part of his work for the PAS are finds made by members of the public and made available so they can become part of public record. The public records of the PAS (I have no special access) showed a sudden and mysterious jump of 22000 objects and this was there assigned to something Vincent Drost had done. The total was brought up to over "a million" and this is used by metal detectorists and their apologists at home and abroad as an argument "how useful collection driven exploitation is" meaning we and the PAS have to be very clear what these figures actually represent. Dr Drosts's involvement in this is not as a private individual, so when somebody starts messing a blogger around when he asks a perfectly civil question, Dr Drost really should not be surprised that the blogger blogs about what has happened. That is not "getting personal" as he put it any more than his fobbing me off with weasel words was.

What happened next was simply weird. On 24th September at 9:44 in the morning after a break in the thread of more than a week, Dr Drost timidly writes to Michael Lewis. 
Dear Michael, sorry to bother you. I came across Paul Barford's blog. I know he's a trouble maker [...] Even if this is nonsense [...]
I think that says an awful lot about what the self-anointed demigods in the British Museum and its Portable Antiquities Scheme are probably saying about the Portable Antiquities Collecting and Heritage Issues blog. Troublemaking nonsense- monger. Note the coy "I came across PMB's blog". Dr Drost does seem from this exchange to have a few problems actually admitting what the problem is... Dr Lewis sees through this fluff, barely 20 minutes later he is berating the new boy:
I saw Philippa [Walton] the other day and she said you had replied to him - is that so? Maybe she got that wrong 
Oh dear. Caught out by the office grapevine. Dr Drost contritely replies (Note that in fact before his reply, I had only written once and then sent a polite reminder a week later):
"As he kept asking, I've [sic] sent him a short reply in consultation with Sam and Ian, below is what I wrote [he quotes it in entirety ...] I probably shouldn't have but I don't think this changes anything. I understand now that I have to completely ignore him and his blog.
What an extraordinary and comic exchange!   Like a little boy to his school headmaster, "I know I shouldn't have done, but no harm was done, honest, but he made me do it!" Michael Lewis, as if to reinforce the impression we are dealing with a group of schoolkids, thinks up (24th September 10:50) a way to "irritate him [i.e. me] more". [tee hee]. Anyway, Dr Drost tries to be a good employee and assures Dr Lewis (24th Sept 2014, 10:56): "I am going to ignore him completely from now on. Sorry about that (sorry Sam and Ian to involve you in this)". Mike Lewis soothes him (perhaps in his best Stephen Fry voice):
"Its no ones fault. he is a tricky one to deal with, especially as we feel we ought to reply. But he is so mischievous I think it is fine to ignore him".
I've not been called "mischievous" since I was ten and certainly not by anyone who forgets to use apostrophes in official communications. It is "fine" in the British Museum, apparently, to ignore substantive public enquiries. What on earth is going on here? Involved in what, precisely? A member of the public asks PAS a question, and what exactly is Drost apologising for? The impression you get from some of these emails is that PAS head office is some kind of pretty distopic organization. I was not expecting that, I must admit.

Ian Richardson at first appears to attempt to insert some sanity into the communal self-flagellation and recriminations (24th September 11:21 to ML, VD, copied to SM). He actually sees where the issue arises: "I think what happened was that PB was keeping an eye on the overall counter as it ticked approached a million and when, all of a sudden it went over, he was able to query the database statistics" (bingo - got it in one, see it's not so difficult). Disappointingly he seems unable to go that one step further to thinking outside the institutional box: "it really is frustrating to have such a useful tool, which helps make our work more transparent, used in a mischievous way" . Eh? (See below). No fear, Michael Lewis (24th September 2014, 11:24) assures Ian Richardson, VD, Sam Moorhead, Dan Pett and a person whose name has been redacted out (and where did this person suddenly come into the thread?) that "Dan said that he and [redacted] were going to look at how the counter works". Gotta get that transparency issue sorted out, make sure that they prevent "mischievous people" seeing how many objects were recorded by whom in any particular time period.

[Note, not that he'll see it: I would not bother Dan, the totals are now so hopelessly muddled, the results so periodically inconsistent (and have been since we were discussing them on Britarch and on the PAS public forum which you closed), that nobody who has looked at them carefully really believes any of it any more.]

There is some more chat about not replying to queries from Barfords, more self-recriminations (VD, SM),  then flippancies. Pathetic.

But then, a further redacted person comes into the conversation (Sept 24th 12:08) answering a post in the 'capitalised RE' thread - despite not (?) having been copied in it earlier (suggesting that Christopher Denvir has not actually been able to gather all the relevant material). Actually, I think it is pretty clear from the style who this is and one might be forgiven for thinking that the only reason the name is redacted out is an attempt to hide that he was not copied in the previous correspondence. This person is gloating that since the PAS are keeping information from members of the public what I write is allegedly "ill-informed". Well, whose fault is that if true? In any case, is there only "one Truth" that of the PAS and Baz Thugwit? Is that what the PAS want us to believe? The demigods decide and it is for the rest of us to just accept the crumbs of wisdom that drop out of the clouds which veil the true face of "The Great Social Experiment Which is The Great and Glorious PAS". This Deus ex machina advises his readers to "avoid his blog posts as [...] this is all grist to his mill. Worse still is that regularly viewed blog posts will climb the ranks of Google and be more likely to turn up in search results for your name". Sounds like... the pompous alarmism of a well-known Washington allobbyist Tompa ! Then the sky will fall and the seas turn to blood, no doubt. Thus spake Bloomsbury.  (Of course this is anti-Googlian nonsense, if VD reads a post about looting in Syria on my blog, a Google search will not associate him with ISIL).

To return to what Ian Richardson said, the work of any publicly funded heritage body like the PAS should be 100% transparent. It's not the Ministry of Defence, its about little old ladies finding potsherds in their rose beds and little boys finding Roman glass beads on an allotment. In any case, to follow almost everything you read about the PAS, they consider making the database, and making the database" bigger" is their work. The only thing that is mischievous is (a) including Treasure hoards on the database of non-Treasure finds to boost numbers of 'voluntarily reported finds' (the Treasure Report is the place for them) and (b) hiding the true source of the information behind smokescreens. And it is not me being "mischievous" in trying to find out what the PAS are up to with their artefact hunting "partners". If the PAS is built on the basis of a multivocality of archaeology, then my seeking knowledge of the past has as much validity and rights as Baz Thugwit's. Yet Baz gets patted on the head by the PAS and I get called names and insulted for asking the same sort of questions. I have every right to ask what the PAS and their metal detecting partner are doing with the heritage, my heritage, and  I have a right to get an answer to these questions, and they (ivory tower demigods or not) as a public institution have an obligation to share that information without me having to put in an FOI request.

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