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Is WhatsApp deleting history?

Neville Chamberlain working on government papers in 1932. Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Is WhatsApp killing political history? Prime ministers from William Gladstone to Neville Chamberlain would communicate in long letters, or in scrawled notes in the margins of briefing papers. Modern leaders ceaselessly plan and plot on WhatsApp and email, and often end up deleting their messages. But the belief that “documents tell the whole truth” is “marvellously naive”, historian Anthony Seldon tells the Red Box podcast. Every piece of evidence is created for a reason, and if people know they’re being recorded, they’ll “manicure what they say”. Even if WhatsApp messages and emails are submitted to the National Archives one day, people will have motivations for handing them over.

Yet these messages are still valuable, says Catherine Haddon of the Institute for Government. There has always been discussion “around the margins”, which usually takes place unrecorded over drinks and dinners. Now that’s happening online, politicians are effectively “taking notes as they go” – notes that might bring a more detailed kind of colour to the political memoirs of the future.

Listen to the podcast here, from 17:50.