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by Carl Gardner and Robert M. Young

The differences between the dramatically changing role of science and the way that it is represented on TV needs to be examined with a view towards generating a much more critical approach — one which has the effect of opening up issues for public debate, rather than, as at present, leading to closure. Science, technology and medicine and their respective modes of discourse are an increasingly important component of the social formation in advanced capitalist countries. After school, for the overwhelming majority of people in Britain, science (which we will use as a generic term for science, technology and medicine) is experienced almost wholly through the film and broadcast media. For most of the general population 'science' is constructed through TV science programmes, both 'serious' and fictional. In the commonly understood meaning of science, it makes little sense to talk of a discrete body of knowledge and set of practices, apart from this representation. TV, then, is the principal bearer of the social meaning of 'science', and it is our contention that such a meaning has real material effects within our society. TV's construction is a lot more than a simple mirroring of scientific endeavour, an innocent transmission of scientific achievement into the public domain.

As part of a larger project, it is our intention in this article to interrogate the view of science as presented by TV, because it plays an important role in impeding the possibility of social and political intervention to change the course of science, technology and medicine. The current ideology of science on TV is a material force in reinforcing current priorities and practices in society.

Any adequate analysis of TV's view of science would have to deal with the following issues:

1) The already existing ideologies and conceptions of science which TV 'feeds off' and its practitioners appropriate and propagate in the course of programme elaboration; for example, empiricism, positivism, and the current philosophies of science as represented in the work of Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, and those who debate about their positions.

2) The social and cultural formation of TV's practitioners, their view of the television process and their role within it, including their class, education and training, as well as the subculture of media and cultural theory within which they move.

3) The specific labour process of television, the division of labour within TV practice and the institutionalisation of science's own division of labour within TV departments, including the separation of content from the requirements of production and the barriers between writers, presenters, researchers, directors, etc.

4) The various televisual styles and techniques usually regarded inside television as 'common sense', 'natural', and 'transparent'. TV's meanings are constructed through these devices and, in the case of science, are crucial in the maintenance of the status of scientific knowledge.

5) Directly economic determinations, particularly the increasing requirements of co-production deals with the United States. Because of the state of our own research at the time of writing, this article will concern itself principally with (1) and (4), while touching the other questions where appropriate. This does not mean that we consider those questions primary. It is simply the case that we thought it worthwhile to take stock of our work in progress. We draw our examples from the following series: Horizon, Tomorrow’s World, Don't Just Sit There, The Voyage of Charles Darwin, The Body in Question, Oppenheimer, and various 'one-off' documentaries. We will not be concerned here with the fictional representation of science in the context of drama and children's TV — Doctor Who, Quatermass, Blake's Seven, Star Trek, etc. — or science as treated in several recent popular feature films, such as Alien, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Empire Strikes Back, etc., some of which have already appeared on television. This ought to be attempted in any wider study, and the interaction and overlap between the various genres thoroughly analysed. Nor will it be possible, except in passing, to examine the way that science enters into and is elaborated by various news and current affairs series not primarily designated as 'scientific'.

As this article is addressed primarily to questions of TV representation and programme-making strategies, we would like to finish with some suggestions as to how TV might deal with them — alternatives at the level of TV styles, conventions and representational devices. How would one do a TV programme about a particular subject — to signify which meanings for which audiences — is a question which must be continually posed. TV science practitioners constantly defend their work with the unchallengeable rebuff: 'Oh, we did that in a programme in September 1977...' (rather like the American tourist rampaging through Europe — 'We've done Rome and we've done Paris', etc.). How precisely they did it, how it was treated, what were the dominant meanings, ought to be the principal questions at issue. But it should be borne in mind that alternative programme-making strategies could best be elaborated in the process of production. This is a process in which we have become involved since our research began, and our participant observations about it will be presented in our larger study.

How science is presented on television is not merely a matter of aesthetic nuance. It is a cliché that science, technology and medicine are impinging more and more directly and pervasively on people's lives — a true cliché. They are not merely impinging (a model drawn from the erroneous 'internal-external' dichotomy between science and society). They are reconstituting work and consumption. Television proclaims these changes and occasionally plays an impressive role in agenda setting. For example, the Horizon programme 'Now the Chips are Down' had an important part in waking up the government and the public to the importance of microprocessors, while The Mighty Micro, despite its numerous weaknesses, spelled out some of the likely effects of chips.

But the impact of the new technology on work, employment, leisure and consumption are not the only aspects. The dramatic increases in the real subordination in the labour process have hardly been mentioned: monitoring, pacing, surveillance, the scientific management (or Taylorisation) of white collar work. The ways in which such programmes are presented separates the substance of knowledge and technology from the process of origination and prioritisation which would make explicit the values involved. These topics are precluded by the breathless form of presentation which operates at an expository pace and conveys a sense of inevitability rather than one of social choice. The means of production, the setting of research and development agendas, and the social relations of production and application of scientific knowledge all embody particular positions about the development of society, yet these are rarely examined. Looking at the issue at a more exclusively economic level, as Frank Webster and Kevin Robins have shown in their article 'Mass Communication and "Information Technology" ' (1979) the entire domain of information and communication has merged into those of social control in all spheres of life and is increasingly directed by multinational corporations (Mattelart, 1979, p. 9).

Equally dramatic changes are afoot in medicine: in artificial fertilisation and implantation, cryogenesis, foetal diagnosis, choice of infant sex, host mothers, transplant surgery, cerebrally-implanted electrodes, mood control, control of immune responses, treatment of viral diseases and cancer. The public is slowly being made aware of some of the consequences of biotechnology for the food, drug and chemical industries, and the significance of genetic engineering and cloning is becoming apparent. It is not yet widely appreciated, however, that biotechnological and medical changes are likely to affect our lives, jobs and economy even more than microprocessors and to raise problems which we have not yet begun to know how to debate or to resolve. Whose baby is it, for example, when the egg which comes from one person, with the sperm from AID (artificial insemination by donor), is then gestated and given birth to by another person? What does it mean to change living forms virtually at will by means of genetic engineering? How will the different spheres of life be maintained when home terminals for clerical and executive work, as well as for leisure and shopping, eliminate the current bases for distinguishing the roles of houseworker, home worker and consumer? What will become of labour-intensive agricultural societies when a single machine in a single traverse of a field can do the work currently requiring intensive cultivation and up to eight machines and twelve energy passes per crop? We choose these questions from a large number of pertinent ones in order to convey a sense of the sorts of social and political questions which the current modes of presentation of science do not seem inclined or equipped to consider.

We have on the one hand a firmly-established and highly-regarded set of conventions for the presentation of science — conventions which are expository, narrative and fundamentally celebratory, purveying culture to an audience of passive consumers who regard a spectacle. On the other hand, we have developments in science which are fundamentally reconstituting aspects of life, including conception, birth, behavioural control, work, education, sexuality, leisure, consumption, bodily repair, senescence, death and the recycling of human organs. There is an alarming inconsistency between the mode of presentation and the significance of these issues. We want to argue that it is an urgent priority for television to alter its approach to these matters in fundamental ways — to move from science as cultural consumption to science as critique; from the content of science as progress to an analysis of the constitution of science, technology and medicine, of their labour processes and of their articulations with other practices; from the 'impact' of science to the process of constitution of its research programme, opening up to public scrutiny and prioritisation the origination of issues, facts and artifacts.

In order to see the point of recasting the approach to science, it is necessary to undermine the prevailing distinction between science and society — two domains which are treated as interacting, with the interaction more or less (usually less) spelled out. We want, instead, to propose a conception of science as constituted by and constitutive of social relations just as others have treated technology and medicine as social relations (see David Dickson, 1974, Webster and Robins, 1979, Figlio, 1978 and 1979 and Young, 1977).

As things now stand, the eyes of programme-makers are firmly fixed on the content of knowledge and the process of discovery. There is, in addition, another topic which tends to be considered separately from the substance of knowledge (in itself regarded as 'neutral'): its social impact. The result is that discovery and substance are presented as internal to science, while social impact is seen as an interacting variable. Science is one thing, context another. We think this approach has produced a systematic blinkering, a tunnel vision with separate programmes and separate series concerned with aspects of a single totality which should be seen as a whole. The social relations and social processes of science should be conceived of as integral to its substance. It is worth mentioning that this is by now a commonplace in radical studies of other aspects of culture. The privileged treatment of science in these respects is curious, to say the least. Literature, drama, plastic and graphic arts, cinema, and television itself are currently studied according to models which attempt to relate the context, presentation, content and impact into a single coherent account of meanings. This is also a commonplace in the treatment of science from periods other than our own. Historians of ancient, medieval, Arab, Renaissance, seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth-century science go to considerable lengths to show how the science is constituted by the historical forces of the period, including frames of reference, major theoretical concepts and even specific research topics. All bear the stamp of their times and places. One only has to think of Foucault's emphasis on the preoccupation with classification across a wide range of disciplines in the eighteenth century, as well as his historical accounts of psychiatry and clinical medicine (see Foucault, 1970, 1971 and 1973).

Yet the origins, process, substance and impact of current science are still parcelled out into different niches. The BBC, in particular, actually institutionalises these divisions in its programme-making departments. Horizon does a programme on 'The Real Bionic Man'; Man Alive another on the ethical, compassionate and legal problems of obtaining organs for transplant ('Wanted: Human Spare Parts'); Horizon does a programme on adipose brown tissue whose metabolism may explain fatness and thinness; Man Alive does a programme on fat as a feminist issue of body image. None of these programmes gives any hint of how its explanations might conceivably articulate with other theories. Brass Tacks does a programme 'Fit to be Born' on the questions surrounding mongolism, spina bifida, and Tay Sachs disease, in which we are told nothing about the state of scientific knowledge of the origins and natures of these defects beyond their being genetic.

Horizon increasingly attempts to address questions which go beyond the exposition of the content of science but does so in an uncritical fashion. In a programme about sugar production in Brazil we are told (three times) that 'Brazil has plenty of cheap labour', which is roughly equivalent to saying that Pakistan has lots of thin people. In a programme on Mexican oil Horizon manages to state in conclusion that 'Nobody wants the oil to distort the Mexican economy or the happier aspects of the Mexican way of life' and cuts to ’Olé!’ singers with guitars and sombreros. These examples are drawn from a large collection to indicate just how careless of other aspects of its context science programmes can be. The division of labour operates here as in other spheres so that it precludes access to the totality of relations which make up any whole. Horizon does science alternating with environment; Tomorrow's World does new technologies in a 'gee whiz' way; The Risk Business does a combination of 'gee whiz' technology and retooling in the national interest'; Man Alive tells 'stories of folk' on the receiving end — the sociological and human interest aspects; The Money Programme deals with the economics of it all; Open Secret catches out individuals and companies who have abused (otherwise neutral?) science and technology.

Another obstacle to a wider and deeper approach to the representation of science is the over-reliance on the image of scientific endeavour which scientists hold and propagate when considering their work in public contexts. It is our impression, backed up by discussions and interviews with people taking part in the making of science programmes, that belief in the relative autonomy of knowledge is being uncritically propagated on television. The boundary between the academy and the market-place is being constantly defended on the box, in Presidential Addresses, (e.g., to the Royal Society) and perhaps in secondary education. As far as we can tell, this is principally a matter of public relations, since it certainly isn't a view propagated by scientists at work. In other settings, the socio-economic constitution of science, technology and medicine is a commonplace, not excluding the offices, coffee rooms, conferences and granting bodies of scientists, technologists and medical workers. Of course, there are mediations between capital and the state on the one hand and individual researchers on the other, but the research councils, university grants committees and private foundations are themselves increasingly calling for research which meets the needs of industry, while a shrinking public purse makes hustling for direct grants from industry more and more necessary. Whole labs and institutions are dependent on short-term grants for specific projects. Similarly, there is a growing field of research within large industries — IBM, ICI, Dupont. The drug industry depends on such labs. Bell Laboratories is the largest private research facility and exists within the world's largest corporation. On a smaller scale the burgeoning fields of microprocessors and biotechnology make little or no distinction between pure and commercial research. The PhDs they employ and the Nobel Laureates they retain as consultants accept that funding from Standard Oil and National Distillers means that commercial criteria dictate what research they do and when/what to share with colleagues and when to publish. It makes little difference whether one is working in the university or in the new commercial firms in California, Switzerland or Britain.

This is not the place to give an exhaustive history of the diminishing mediations between science and industry. Our point is that the blinkered presentation of science on TV depends on an historically outmoded conception of academic freedom and pure research. What matters in social terms is the interrelations and mutual determinations among the socio-economic and intellectual forces which evoke an area of inquiry and its potential and real relations within the wider community. This should occur before it's all sewn up. Instead of perpetuating a false and idealised conception of the scientists, television could play an important role in the critical evaluation of the issues raised by science. This means opening up the process of origination of new knowledge and scrutinising the goals and purposes built in to research areas, machines, products and procedures. Science and technology (literally) embody choices and priorities selected from the manifold ways of ordering and using natural processes. In that sense, agenda-setting and research policy determine what knowledge and priorities will be pursued. Television is extremely important in this process since it has become the principal agenda setting medium in our society as far as the general public is concerned. The more apparent it becomes that science, technology and medicine are reconstituting our lives and work, the more important it becomes to open up these manifestations of fixed capital and decide what social relations we want embodied by and in them, before they become dead labour which it is nearly impossible to revive. This concludes our sketch of the critical perspective from which we approach current science on TV.  


We turn now to what we consider to be the characteristic televisual styles and techniques for presenting science. The usual mode of presentation of a topic in science is narrative, linear, expository and didactic. The course of the programme alternates between voice-over and 'talking head'. A talking head is television's way of saying 'this is brought directly to you without distortion or mediation'. In the case of science programmes this form of presentation is usually reinforced by racks of test tubes or an impressive piece of apparatus directly behind the talking head, a white lab coat or other apparel, and the knowledge that we are being addressed by 'the top man (sic) in the field' or the 'rising star'. The talking head is either directly addressing the camera or speaking across camera to an unseen interviewer whose questions have been edited out. This is in striking contrast with interviews on programmes where it is accepted that the issue is controversial and open, to some minimal degree at least, to public scrutiny, doubt, debate, etc; for example Panorama, Weekend World. In those programmes we see and hear the interviewer and cut back and forth from interviewer to various protagonists, speaking directly to one another, being challenged and arguing on camera. When scientists disagree on television, one talking head is followed by another, and they are almost never in direct conversation, much less in debate; e.g., Horizon, Open Secret. Similarly, the telling of the story does not convey direct conflict but rather the solving of a mystery, the fitting together of pieces of a puzzle. Stark disagreement is an interruption in the plot line. Science and its telling are synonymous with progress and convey a sense of authority and the advancing edge of objectivity. By these devices and conventions, among others, a special status for scientific knowledge is assured. It is positivist in that it privileges scientific knowledge above other forms of inquiry and in that it separates facts from their contexts of meaning and represents them as above the battle of competing interest groups and classes.

When voice-over is employed, the characteristic tone is moderate, assured, reasoned. It is appropriate to a 'community' which is presented as neutral, objective, normally harmonious, disinterested and working for the good of humankind. Humour, irony, paradox and rhetorical questioning are rare, as are invitations to the viewer to dissent, criticise or respond. This mode of presentation, of audience positioning, is epitomised in the voice of Paul Vaughan, Horizon's usual narrator: even, dignified cultural celebration; familiar, evoking trust. Horizon is almost the Wimbledon of science on TV, and Paul Vaughan is its Dan Maskell. This tone is common to series across the arts and sciences. It is hegemonic in the precise sense that it induces deference and organises consent by eliciting willingness to be the passive recipient of versions of history organised and presented for our edification. Patient, restrained, conveying in some cases real enthusiasm, but never shrill: Lord Clark, Alistair Cooke, Jacob Bronowski, David Attenborough, James Burke, Brian Magee, Jonathan Miller. It recalls the styles of presentation of Sir Isaiah Berlin and Lord Annan in the arts and Sir Peter Medawar, Lord Ashby and Stephen J. Gould in science writing. It is in sharp contrast to the hectoring 'Must-I-go-through-this-again' tone of explanation to a wilfully slow pupil which characterises some politicians, e.g., Mrs Thatcher and MM Callaghan and Healey. In the domain of science Patrick Moore and Magnus Pyke are atavistic exceptions to highlight the norm. They harken back to a thirties and forties film caricature of the eccentric absent-minded professor. Scientific and technological interviewees are rarely pressed as others are by a (Sir!) Robin Day, Brian Widlake or Brian Walden ('Let me put this to you, Minister . . .'). Indeed, since the questions are usually edited out, the talking head has a clear, undisputed run. The technique used in science interviewing is television's most permissive one, known as 'open-elicit'. The interviewer simply asks a leading question and lets the tape run while the interviewee gives his/her version of events. The interviewee's status and credibility are enhanced by being allowed to construct the story and present it directly to camera, without interruption or apparent mediation.

In short, the conventions of television's presentation of science are those of the informative lecture. The viewer is expected to be interested but unsophisticated. This is made very obvious in the blockbuster programmes celebrating Einstein's centenary. In both cases, the figure representing 'everyman', standing in for the audience, was (male and) portrayed as a comical Dummkopf — Peter Ustinov in Nigel Calder's BBC epic and Dudley Moore in another BBC special covering similar ground. The assumption (intention?) seems to be that the audience are not expected to become more sophisticated as viewers of science, technology and medicine. The audience is itself constructed as a group of simpletons to be 'better informed', which is not the same thing as being challenged by subtle and demanding ways of presenting issues. Still less does the prevailing mode of presentation invite genuine engagement or comment on the part of the watching millions.

All this is in contrast with the growing assumption that viewers can deal with great variation in modes of presentation in films, drama series, spy stories, westerns, cop shows: a degree of unexplained cutting, lack of resolution, paradox, irony, comedy, etc. Admittedly, in radical representational terms, these don't go far, but it is worth pondering that the makers of Kojak, and The Sweeney, Dallas, and Soap, not to mention ostensibly up-market offerings such as Pennies from Heaven and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, assume their audiences have a greater visual and plot sophistication than the supposedly elite viewers of Horizon. In making this comparison we do not want to imply that fictional programmes do not convey dominant meanings, but the principal difference at work here is that between 'factual' and 'fictional' TV. The latter does not pretend to offer facts and can therefore allow the viewer more 'freedom' within a complex of conventions and styles. 'Non-fiction' TV, of which science programmes are the paradigm, claims to represent the facts. Therefore, any ambiguity in the representation is seen as a failure of exposition. Science, of course, is defined by the attempt to eliminate ambiguity. However, if the boundary between the substance, context and social relations of science was relaxed, the camera could invite us to draw our own conclusions and make observations on individuals and debates in the same way that it does in other controversial areas. The existing conventions in science programmes treat implicit or explicit ambiguities as a simple failure of exposition. We would argue that by virtue of their adherence to the positivist notion of the 'fact' and the notion of value-free objective activity, science programmes must demand a much more rigid system of closure than do other TV genres. These assumptions do not leave questions open to debate or to critical scrutiny of terms of reference.

Thus, science broadcasting is 'educating' viewers in one sense — the nature of scientific 'progress' — while firmly keeping them in the role of school children in relation to visual and critical sophistication. It is also worth briefly considering the other genres of 'factual' television. In sharp contrast to science broadcasting which is only concerned with the complexities of finding, London Weekend Television, for example, has made it a policy to upgrade their viewers' understanding of current events by representing controversies as such, laying bare the complexities of issues in opposition to TV's 'bias against understanding'. An attempt is made to avoid premature closure, even though in the hands of producer David Cox and presenter Brian Walden this technique has become threadbare. Indeed, a pioneer of this approach, Peter Jay, claimed that this was one of the main aims in the planned programming of the new franchise holder for breakfast television, TV-AM. Other programmes often clearly take sides in areas of controversy, despite all kinds of journalistic ideologies to the contrary. For example, Granada's World in Action, ATV's Vodka-Cola, and some of Yorkshire TV's documentaries are powerfully partisan. Science broadcasting is unique in remaining totally expository, 'neutral', above the battle and determinedly wary of developments in visual presentation. Indeed, Horizon's Editor is quite candid in avowing the extremely important role of talking heads and 'visual wallpaper' in the series' format — 'When in doubt, cut to a centrifuge or an analogous piece of scientific equipment'.


In the light of the above framework and critique, we want to look more closely at certain programmes and series. Horizon has been for many years the flagship of the BBC's fleet of science programmes. It came out of the Science and Features Department, founded in 1963, neatly preempting the 'white heat' of Harold Wilson's technological revolution. Science and Features also produces The Risk Business, Medical Express, Young Scientist of the Year, The Great Egg Race, Tomorrow's World, Open Secret, and The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, in addition to the major series — Calder, Bronowski, Leakey, Miller, Attenborough — and various one-off documentaries.

Most of the general remarks we have made above have had Horizon as their primary reference point. The programme has been enormously influential, has been the training ground of many producers of science programmes and is closely imitated by the American programme Nova, where many of its refugees have gone to work. Since its foundation in 1964, it has produced up to forty fifty-minute programmes per year. That's a lot of miles of tape and film not to have broadened their horizons with. (It should be added that in the 1980-81 Horizon series, their range of topics has widened but that their approach remains the same.)

This is not to say, of course, that the programme isn't excellent within its own terms of reference. If one accepts those parameters, it is nonpareil, as its offerings on endorphins, the Jupiter space mission, Earth's magnetism and 'The Cancer Detectives of Lin Xian' have shown. Indeed, the last of these transcended Horizon's normal brief by giving full weight to the social origins, labour process and relations of research. It's just a pity that this radical approach was negated in the programme's concluding statement. Instead of recognising the Chinese method of socio-medical research as an implicit critique of Western medicine's dependence on prophylactic solutions, the final contention was of an equivalence between them — a sort of medical corollary of detente.

On the other hand, the series epitomises the existing approach in the bulk of its production. Most of its producers exhibit a very deferential attitude towards the self-conceptions of mandarin scientists. Within the department there is a surprisingly naive enthusiasm for having access to the 'top man in the field', a source any Kuhnian would suggest should at least be complemented by reference to dissenters from the reigning paradigm. Similarly, reliance on the Scientific Consultative Committee ensures that, with rare exceptions, only established approaches need apply. More significantly, the question of how programme topics get chosen leads us back to a startlingly complacent source. We are told by Horizon's Editor that they select themselves: 'There they are, staring up at you in the literature' — Nature and New Scientist are the favourite sources of ideas. This puts them in close touch with a consensus and with the latest developments but can hardly be said to take them beneath established views.

In a recent Open University TV programme on how Horizon is made, members of the production team displayed a remarkably facile and complacent view of their approach:

Chris Pollitt: 'Despite difficulties, television producers do strive for a particular conception of objectivity. At viewings like this one they aim to improve accuracy, clarity and — a favourite television word this — "balance". To achieve these aims Horizon itself needs to master its subject matter. You don't carry in-house expertise, I mean neither you, for example, nor Chris, would be . . . ?'

Simon Campbell Jones: 'No. We have a fair amount of background knowledge. I have made a nuclear programme of my own. Many other producers have made programmes in this area, and a lot of discussion goes on in the club and in the canteen and sort of up and down the corridors about what everybody is doing. And one can lean on other people and get clues and ideas. It's basically getting contacts. And once you've got into the sort of circuit, of scientists and people within a topic area, you then find that you can more or less complete that circuit. By the time you've gone right round it, you know that you've got everybody in that field.'

Here we have a repetition of the clichés of television objectivity coupled with a description of research methodology which falls a long way short of aggressively seeking out non-establishment views.

Significantly, the Horizon team are very preoccupied with retaining the good will of the scientific community and don't often go in for hard hitting analyses unless the topic is already an established scandal. Even there, in the case of the IQ controversy, they are preoccupied with whether or not it's 'good science', where the real point at issue in this case is the ideological power of a particularly influential form of scientism which legitimates social and racial hierarchies by 'scientific' means. We asked a Horizon researcher about their relations with the growing community of people who think, do research and make critical stands on the history, philosophy and social relations of science as well as the new disciplines such as science policy, 'science, technology and society', bioethics, technology assessment. He replied, 'We have no regard for that community.' When taxed about this, he made it very clear that it was the scientific community, not the people who think about science, to which Horizon directs its attention. Nor do they give much credence to the explicitly critical perspectives of political pressure groups who are concerned with science. They may present issues raised by media orientated Friends of the Earth, but not by the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science and associated groups such as Health and Safety, Politics of Health, Radical Science Journal, Socialist Environment and Resources Association, Network for Alternative Technology and Technology Assessment. Born in the wake of the Pilkington Committee's recommendations that science should be more prominent on television (1961), Horizon epitomises the existing approach and influences its 2-5 million audience week after week.

Two science programmes aimed at a 'mass audience' are placed in strategic slots. Tomorrow's World, founded in 1967, falls between Nation wide and Top of the Pops, with the result that it has 8-l0 million viewers. Its presenters are very clean and wholesome. Originally Raymond Baxter, and now the current team of Michael Rodd, Judith Hann and Kieran Prendiville, represent the best of their respective generations. Baxter was a Spitfire pilot who savoured the Merlin engine in a retrospective, nostalgic programme on Rolls Royce, while the new team convey the achievements and enthusiasm of a keen grammar school meritocracy. The programme's pace and tone are no accident. The originator of the series, Aubrey Singer, who went on to become Controller of BBC 2 and then BBC radio, is reported to have said that the response he desired was an awed 'Gee Whiz!' from the viewer after every item. Dazzle them with the glossy, shiny end-products of science, wrapped up in a wholesome, pastel-coloured package, but ensure that they don't have to think much about what they're marvelling at. The emphasis is on progress, and questioning and criticism are rare.

There isn't much difference either between Raymond Baxter's nostalgic patriotism and the new format and team of presenters. When Tomorrow's World wanted to underline the importance of engineering in the wake of the Finniston Report, they didn't wheel out any of the entrepreneurs of the new NEB-sponsored microchip firms or the winner of the Nobel Prize for inventing the body scanner. We were treated instead to Michael Rodd reverentially interviewing HRH The Prince of Wales who professed to know little about it, though he was sure it was important, and was glad to be Hon. something or other to the relevant society and to encourage young people to take up engineering as a career, since creativity, invention and enterprise are essential to Britain's future prosperity. The facelift which Tomorrow's World underwent when Raymond Baxter departed has left it with a visage which is shallow and flashy. It is offering a very straight version of the meritocratic dream to young people awaiting Top of the Pops — a sort of technological version of Pan's People or Legs & Co. In the current economic climate this borders on the socially obscene.

There is no regular ITV equivalent, but for thirteen weeks in the summer, slotted between Crossroads and Coronation Street, Yorkshire TV brings us Don't Just Sit There, a programme which represents a significant and — at least in its intentions — in some ways laudable negotiation of the relationship between science and the 'public'. In 1974 the IBA said that they wanted more factual programmes to go out before 9pm. Most of the ITV companies were stumped, but the Controller of Yorkshire TV complied and came up with Don't Ask Me, which had the unusual feature that viewers were invited to send in questions. The programme makers were seeking outside stimuli; Austin Mitchell was the compere; Rob Buckman and Magnus Pyke were the experts who gave the answers. The model was the Victorian science lecture, and although the format worked in TV terms, it still left a polarisation of us v. them. They spent two more years developing a different format, and David Bellamy came up with a model more like the Victorian scientific society, with the studio and viewing audiences taking a much more active part. Where Horizon provides elitist cultural celebration without apparent mediation between 'top men' and the consumer, and Tomorrow's World issues an invitation to help re-tool Britain for the glossy, meritocratic future, Don't Just Sit There is avowedly mundane and populist. Its presenters are all shameless hams: Rob Buckman or Miriam Stoppard (medical), David Bellamy (botanical/zoological) and Magnus Pyke (physical), though these demarcations are not strictly followed. The pace is manic, often zany, driven by Pyke's delivery, with props and hearty fun reminiscent of It's a Knockout. For all its hucksterism, it has two great merits. First, it invites the viewers and studio audiences to raise questions, suggest research projects and propose and work on their own answers — though not to raise issues or debate problems. The format doesn't invite topics which can't be handled snappily, and an undisguised facticity pervades the whole spectacle. Second, it makes a serious effort to demystify expert knowledge in general and specific ways, particularly through analogy. The knock-about atmosphere is attractively irreverent, in contrast to Horizon where the theme music and tone invite one into the cathedral of science. Its explanations are, on the whole, accessible. The programme does, however, display the contradictions of populism. On the one hand, the invitation to participate is genuine, and people are drawn in: 'We want you, the viewer, to actively help us understand the science of everyday things and make them more interesting'. The viewers propose topics and supply their own ingenious answers as well as data for the nationwide surveys, e.g., on rainfall, geographical distribution of types of cats or rats, outrageous kinds of wines, home-made synthetic rubber, ways of drying lettuce, problems with heart pacemakers, what makes a hula hoop return when skidded across the floor, cures for babies who won't sleep, ways of identifying the contents of unlabelled cans without opening them. The format precludes controversial social, industrial and educational issues and concentrates heavily on the domestic sphere. On the other hand, the resident experts act as judges in the contests and as explainers of just what scientific principles are being illustrated. Us v. them is less in the foreground compared with the earlier format of the series, but the current one remains patronising. The presenters tend to give with one hand and take back with the other as they cut short the participants' exposition and announce what the medical or physical law or symptom is. It is almost as though they cannot refrain from protesting that the programme's format is in danger of upstaging their own expertise (David Bellamy suffered least from this anxiety) . One is reminded of Socrates in the Platonic Dialogues, speaking at great length and then asking the rhetorical question, as when he proves to the slave boy in 'The Meno' that he already knows the Pythagorean Theorem. The audience is, in the end, in the hands of the 'experts', even though the interaction is less pompous and authoritarian than in other science programmes. In the last analysis the 'participation' seen here is ersatz, a carefully manufactured glimpse of more democratic possibilities.

Indeed, the production staff told us that the presenters' expertise was itself only a PR role, since it could lead to difficulties if, say, Pyke and Stoppard pitted their knowledge against what the producers wanted them to say. Their role is that of actors but with expert qualifications to lend legitimacy to their performances.  


The other series we want to consider at length is the impressive and lavishly produced The Voyage of Charles Darwin. We were, like everyone else, enthralled and impressed by the photography, the acting, the attention to period detail, and above all the attempt to portray an intellectual odyssey in dramatic terms. The trick was done, however, at a high price. Both the socio-economic and the intellectual contexts were simply edited out, and we were left with a dramatically successful but historically simplistic opposition between Captain Fitzroy's biblical literalism about the Divine creation of species and Darwin's putative inductivism leading to the theory of evolution by natural selection. Fossil facts discovered on the voyage, species differences encountered in the Galapagos islands — these, we are told, led the humble naturalist to his discovery. This nice young man comes across as the quintessence of English empiricism.

What, then, were the questions which were unasked? Why, for example, was The Beagle charting the coast of South America with such great care in the first place? Why did Britain want to know so much? What were the economic, geopolitical and cartographic desiderata which created the expedition? What was the intellectual context within which Darwin conducted his studies? We get no hint that Darwin learned Lamarck's theory of evolution while still a student at Edinburgh and little indication that his own grandfather had published a much discussed evolutionary theory in 1794. We see Darwin given Volume I of Lyell's Principles of Geology, but we are not told of its crucial bearing on the question of the origin of species. We do not see Volume II reach him in Montevideo, with its early chapters reviewing the issue of evolution with great care. Darwin had a working library on The Beagle, but there is no sign of it. Instead of these important indicators of his intellectual milieu, we see him tramping about, puzzling over myriad findings. This is, of course, half the story — but only half. Similarly, after his return to England, we learn nothing of the contemporary debate over evolutionism. In the year when Darwin wrote out the first extended version of his theory, the evolutionism in Robert Chambers' Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) was a cause célèbre, but we hear nothing of it. Similarly, in Darwin's own musings the theories of scarcity and of the interactions between people and nature loom very large. The ideas of Malthus on the relationship between nature's resources and population growth were central to both the socio-economic context and the scientific one. They were the basis of the 1834 Poor Law and a key influence on Darwin's thinking in the weeks of 1838 when he first focused on the mechanism of natural selection.

We sketch these matters in some detail to highlight the contrast between two sorts of verisimilitude in the making of the series. There were maritime and historical advisers. The maritime adviser's injunctions were deferred to, down to the finest detail. The historical adviser on the other hand, was listened to with care when he pointed out that the script presented a version of events which was in no way true to history not even to Darwin's own Autobiography, which the production team claimed to be following. Their main source was a personal reminiscence written from memory for his grandchildren years later and never intended for publication. The adviser argued that a much more interesting story could be told which took greater account of the intellectual and other contexts. The episodes were even re-written, but in the end he was overruled. The historical adviser was given the option of removing his name from the credits. The reason given was that 'dramatic criteria' called for a more stark, simpler version, which was supplied by re-writes from the producer and director, Christopher Ralling and Martin Friend. Dramatic criteria (and the requirements of us co-producers) had also led them to bring forward the maritime aspect, stress the suicide of the previous captain of The Beagle and build up Fitzroy's part far beyond his role in Darwin's later life. This was done to keep up the opposition between them throughout the series. It is our opinion that the deference to appearances (a strictly empiricist notion of authenticity) and the tradition of tele-dramas based on life at sea in the Victorian era led to the deference to the maritime adviser. One is reminded of The Onedin Line which was also directed by Martin Friend, whose experience in that series and knowledge of Spanish were important advantages. The tradition of valuing dramatic qualities above scientific ones (a function of the pecking order within the hierarchy of British culture and of TV in particular) and failing to increase the sophistication of viewers about the complexities of science, made it possible (and perfectly permissable) to play fast and loose with the scientific, socio-economic and intellectual aspects. We end up with a dramatically successful, ideologically loaded portrayal of the lone genius pitted against the forces of ignorance and superstition, which no student of science or history could take seriously. An important opportunity was missed, and a version of science and its social relations which is of no critical use in our culture was propagated. The naive inductivism and empiricism attributed to Darwin are truly embarrassing. The series resurrects a feature of dominant ideology which even its conservative proponents (e.g., Sir Karl Popper) have transcended. It is true that Darwin once said that he proceeded according to true Baconian principles, collecting facts with no theory in mind. But he also said that everyone knows that a fact has to count for or against some theory or other to have any meaning. Once again, we only get half the story.

The producer of the series, Christopher Ralling, went on to become Head of BBC Documentaries. In a lecture that he gave at the American Film Institute inaugurating a season under the title 'Salute to the BBC', he gave this breathtakingly banal version of his ground rules: ' 1. Never invent a major scene which did not actually take place. 2. Always use the actual words if they are available. 3. Whenever possible use the actual geographical locations' (Listener, 10 January 1980, p. 43). Once again, it is undeniable that these principles have produced very effective television within the bounds of TV naturalism, which is itself a version of empiricism, unable to go beyond surface appearances. This was especially true in the location filming and in the expression of actual words in a 'natural' way. But which words? Which locations? Which scenes? The list is deceptively straightforward, ignoring the ways in which historians select events and construct their meanings. History remains unproblematically transparent. The list is also too short. It ignores wider historical forces, intellectual and ideological movements. It is, in short, a positivistic account, treating facts as though they were separable from the network of meanings which give them life and historical efficacy. Similarly, the metaphysical and theological issues are reduced to a conflict between 'science' and 'religion' which recent scholarship on the period has set aside. The upshot is a half admirable attempt to present an intellectual odyssey dramatically. It did this only by traducing the very richness which gave Darwinism meaning in nineteenth century history. It reduces the complex determinations of his life, works and milieu to a decontextualised individualist inductivism and presents these within the conventions of narrative naturalism. The American co-producers could insist that something very dramatic happen before the American viewer could change channels; the maritime adviser could call for changes in uniform or rigging; the historical adviser was simply overruled and ignored. How can this — the finest rendition of science on TV — do for us what culture should: help us to discriminate more subtly and sensitively among the facts and values which make up our lives?

How might a radical science programme-making strategy approach the life and work of Charles Darwin? One essential starting-point would be the necessary break with the ideological division between 'factual' and 'fictional' television within the time-honoured but nonsensical distinction between drama and documentary. All TV is a selected, constructed process of representation, as is all investigation of nature. We cannot, of course, elaborate a total strategy here, but the foregoing critique obviously delineates the sorts of things we would not do, the devices we would not adopt. What follows is more an approach than a set of programme directions.

It would be absolutely essential to break with the chronological, naturalistic narrative which Ralling adopted in taking us through Darwin's intellectual odyssey. Such a form is completely incapable of dealing with a complex set of historical determinations and almost automatically sites historical causality within the confines of one heroic individual Any understanding of Darwin as a historical product in the nineteenth century and as a historical subject today has to set aside Ralling's absolutist view of Darwin's own texts as having some kind of immanent meaning, apart from their appropriation by his reviewers, protagonists, antagonists and a whole series of socio-political, intellectual and cultural discourses in his own period and in our own. One could start with his texts, possibly his notebooks in late 1838, when he was beginning to formulate clearly the theory of natural selection. However, even starting from such texts, one would constantly move backwards and forwards, referring continually to his precursors and antecedents, attempting to build up the complexity of the social/economic/intellectual/political network of articulations in which he found himself and which constructed him. It would be important to make clear that the meaning of what he wrote was a synthetic appropriation of the debates into which he intervened. We disagree fundamentally with Ralling's chosen approach to Darwin, which is to privilege Darwin's own retrospective account of himself and to move all the way from Darwin's texts to a naturalised, dramatic reconstruction which then obscures their relative nature, their own historicity. We would wish to highlight and literally display the texts within the production, in a way which sets them against contemporary and current discourses. A powerful model for our chosen form of historical film making is provided by Film and History Project's Song of the Shirt, which we recommend to readers and to TV science and history documentarists alike and which through its inter-discursive, dynamic representation of women garment workers in the 1840s, outside the usual naturalistic framework, succeeds in pointing up the relative, ideologically circumscribed positions of the tellers of history. There is no loss, and many would argue considerable gain, in dramatic effectiveness.

Similar problems arise with respect to the BBC series Oppenheimer, written by Peter Prince and directed by Barry Davies (see Gardner, 1980). This dramatised account of the fortunes of the 'father of the atom bomb' employed the same narrative strategies as The Voyage of Charles Darwin to broadly similar effect. It worked through a process of identification with Oppenheimer, 'the man' at the centre of the story. All the enormous social, economic and political questions surrounding the invention of the bomb had consequently to be subsumed and explained through personalised 'dramatic' incidents involving Oppenheimer himself. The producer is quite candid about this approach: 'Drama allows you to explore what it was like to be Oppenheimer'. The writer had one rule of thumb in selecting which incidents to dramatise: 'If it concerns Oppenheimer it's more important than if it has general importance but doesn't concern Oppenheimer directly'. This guideline led to some strange omissions and compressions of history. Pearl Harbour, the first nuclear reaction in Fermi's pile, Einstein's personal intervention with Roosevelt are all missing moments in the drama. Perhaps more importantly, the context in which the twenty-year span of the drama takes place is subsumed and almost completely unexplained. In particular there is no accounting for the generalised attraction of intellectuals to the Communist Party in the 1930s (for very good reasons) and the anti-communist hysteria of McCarthyism in the late 1950s. These are not incidental details which can be taken for granted as part of a current audience's knowledge of the period. But a dramatised, personalised account, such as this, cannot halt or digress for such prosaic niceties. Taking Oppenheimer as its centre, then, historical and political conflict on a large scale are necessarily (give the chosen form) worked out through a series of confrontations — with his wife Kitty, with Edward Teller, Jane Tatlock, General Groves, various security personnel, McCarthy's henchmen. This is an extremely limited attempt to humanise history and relies for its effect on the employment of a well-known typography of almost stereotypical dramatic characters. For instance, one has the bitchy wife, the suicidal, neurotic mistress, the bullying, authoritarian military man, the humiliated adjutant who seeks revenge, the loyal retainers, the lawyer of integrity, etc. All these are portrayed as almost essential human types who ricochet around the fully-rounded Oppenheimer at the centre of events.

Such an approach as this precludes the vitally important materialistic view of history as the resolution of forces. History becomes, instead, one man's moral dilemma, a position in which the audience is inscribed and forced to adopt. In the whole process of the invention of the bomb there are a host of social, political and economic forces at work which this personal conflict and drama can come nowhere near suggesting. The birth of the bomb was achieved through the most extraordinary harnessing of financial and scientific power on an international scale. Competition between key institutions was temporarily halted and collaboration imposed. Financial provision was limitless. Huge industrial and research complexes, including Los Alamos, were built at breakneck speed. Over 250,000 people were eventually mobilised to wipe out 152,000 at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Perhaps only US capital at its most dynamic and ebullient could have achieved this in the time-span available. Yet these enormous processes, this gigantic scale of co-operation and effort, simply cannot be conveyed within the scenario of personal drama surrounding a single individual, important as he was. Such a preferred narrative approach as this cannot help but imply — wrongly — that individuals are the central agents of history. History, as Marx said, is made by individuals but not under conditions of their own choosing. Its portrayal cannot be reduced to the small change of domestic and workplace tittle-tattle. One is consequently forced to ask, as with the Darwin series, what could one have done instead? Within the broad framework of selected personal and dramatised sequences, one would want to adopt a broadly inter-discursive approach which mixes genres and attempts to portray the changing of historical forces through a range of televisual devices. For example, at certain points within the dramatic narrative, one could break off to use more orthodox documentary devices and sequences of exposition One could continually shift the point of view within which the audience is positioned so that they are able to explore the various aspects of this historical dilemma. One could get the audience to examine in Brechtian fashion, as opposed to being forced to identify with the central persona of Oppenheimer and his own restricted perspective and network of personal relationships. One can see that while politically such a method is eminently more desirable, suggesting a genuinely materialistic dramaturgy, it would demand a break with the shibboleths of orthodox TV drama. Among the most important of these are the maintenance of narrative unity and tension, involvement and identification with the characters, immersion in the plot and suspension of disbelief. However, one can see from this brief analysis how such devices, so beloved of TV, are not simply neutral and useful means of telling a good story. They are, on the contrary, ideological techniques which actually preclude the representation of the full range of proximate and distant determinations which make up a materialist history.


We would like to see the domain of science opened up in at least three ways. First, sources: what forces evoke and constitute the kind of questions, frameworks and specific priorities of science? How do we come to frame the manifold of nature in the ways that we do? This topic goes as wide as asking why biology is currently framed in terms of information, communication, coding and control and as narrow as looking into how foundations and research councils prioritise their grant giving. Here is a list of research areas which were initially funded on a large scale for military purposes and are currently being employed in ways which produce real subordination in the sphere of production: nuclear power, computing, transistors, microprocessors, numerical control of machines, containerised transport, rocketry, electronic voice recognition. It would be enlightening to see the origins, development and applications in a single framework.

Second, the labour process: what are the relations of production of science, technology and medicine? The materials of labour or raw materials, the means of labour or means of production, the human labour or purposive human activity — these are the elements of any labour process, and science should also be closely examined in these terms. The social process of the production of knowledge, research and development of new technologies and products, the process of experimentation and testing of new drugs and medical procedures are in need of closer analysis. The division of labour in the lab, who does what in which social arrangements, the career structure — all these are part of the understanding of the social relations of science. It is, if you like, the bringing of anthropology to the workplace of scientific production. This is a process which has been begun in Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar's Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts (1979). The social study of factory work and life has been subjected to close scrutiny in this way. Why not science?

Third, articulations: how do the results connect up with the rest of society? A Horizon programme called 'The Fight to be Male' appears without any consideration of the relationship between its arguments about a 'sex centre' in the brain and the issues raised about sex and gender by the feminist and gay movements. To be sure, the social or environmentalist explanations were mentioned, but only as alternatives, bordering on straw men. The 'impact' of chips or transplant surgery should not be separated from the description of the hardware and techniques. Matters internal to science are not separable from their social relations. When Jonathan Miller placed himself in sensory isolation in The Body in Question, he only spoke of its relationship with the senses and bodily well-being. He made no reference to the development and use of sensory deprivation — largely in military and security forces interrogation — even though it was a matter of contemporary news. Similarly, when he spoke of blood transfusions as part of an anthropological 'gift relationship', he made no mention of the common sale of blood for sustenance by the poor, alcoholics or drug addicts. Only the body, as a discrete entity, was in question, not the social relations of the body of medical knowledge, much less the mode of production into which bodies are inserted. It could, of course, be argued that we have had an orgy of articulations in James Burke's series Connections. There is some truth in that, but his frenetic accounts tend to be merely connections. He celebrates the association of ideas in an idiosyncratic manner, unrelated to the forces and contradictions which evoke research and the resolutions of forces which research projects embody.

We advocate an approach which keeps all three themes in relation to each other: sources or constitution, labour processes or social relations of production, articulations or contextual relations. Our purpose in advocating a different approach to science on TV is to open up the process of origination of new facts, artifacts and procedures to public scrutiny and debate. As things now stand, we are faced with them at the point of impact when they are so highly developed and/or capitalised that it is difficult to believe that a real democratic process is possible.

Glancing, in conclusion, at the labour process of television itself, one side effect of our approach would be to undermine the existing division of labour in broadcasting and to reconstitute the totality of relations which make up science, technology, medicine and their representation to the general public. If these are as important as we have argued them to be, the ways in which they are treated by television become a central question of society and culture, and the alteration of current modes of representation becomes an important project for those who wish to change the structure of society. 

Popular Film and Television: A Reader, edited by Tony Bennett, Susan Boyd-Bowman, Colin Mercer and Janet Woollacott. London: BFI Publishing in association with The Open University Press, 1981, pp. 171-93. 


Dickson, D. (1974), Alternative Technology and the Politics of Technical Change,

London: Fontana. Dunn, R. G. (1979), 'Science, Technology and Bureaucratic Domination: Television and the Ideology of Scientism', Media, Culture and Society, no. 1.

Figlio, K. (1978), 'Chlorosis and Chronic Disease in Nineteenth-century Britain: the Social Constitution of Somatic Illness in a Capitalist Society', Social History, no. 3.

Figlio, K. (1979), 'Sinister Medicine? A Critique of Left Approaches to Medicine', Radical Science Journal, no. 9.

Foucault, M. (1970), The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, London: Tavistock.

Foucault, M. (1971), Madness and Civilisation: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, London: Tavistock.

Foucault, M. (1973), The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception, London: Tavistock.

Gardner, C. (1978), 'Blinding with Science', Time Out, 20-26 October 1978.

Gardner, C. (ed.) (1979), Media, Politics and Culture: A Socialist View, London: Macmillan.

Gardner, C. (1980), 'One Man's Bomb', Time Out, 24-30 October 1980.

Jones, G., Connell, I, Meadows, J. (1977), The Presentation of Science by the Media, University of Leicester Primary Communications Research Centre.

Kellner, D. (1979), 'TV, Ideology and Emancipatory Popular Culture', Socialist Review, no. 45, May/June 1979.

Kuhn, T. (1971), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Latour, B. and Woolgar, S. (1979), Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts, New York: Russell Sage.

Mattelart, A. (1979), Multinational Corporations and the Control of Culture: The Ideological Apparatuses of Imperialism, Hassocks: Harvester Press.

Popper, K. (1963), Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Ralling, C. (1980), 'What Is Television Doing to History?', Listener, 10 January 1980.

Webster, F. and Robins, K. (1979), 'Mass Communications and "Information Technology" ', in Miliband, R. and Saville, J. (eds.), The Socialist Register, London: Merlin.

Young, R. (1973), 'The Historiographic and Ideological Contexts of the Nineteenth-century Debate on Man's Place in Nature', in Teich, M. and Young, R. (eds.), Changing Perspectives in the History of Science: Essays in Honour of Joseph Needham, London: Heinemann.

Young, R. (1977), 'Science is Social Relations', Radical Science Journal, no. 5.

Young, R. (1979a), 'Science is a Labour Process', Science for People, nos. 43/44.

Young, R. (1979b), 'Science as Culture', Quarto, December 1979.

Checklist of Films and Television Programmes

The Body in Question (BBC) November 1978.

The Clone Affair (BBC) May 1979.

Connections (BBC) October 1978.

Einstein’s Universe (BBC) March 1979.

Horizon (BBC):

'Sweet Solutions' March 1979

'The Real Bionic Man' April 1979.

'The Fight to be Male' May 1979

'The Mexican Oil Dance' September 1979.

'The Fat in the Fire' December 1979.

'The Cancer Detectives of Lin Xian' February 1980.

Man Alive (BBC): 'Fats and Figures' January 1980.

Oppenheimer (BBC) October 1980.

Screening Nuclear Hazard (OU/BBC) June 1980.

The Voyage of Charles Darwin (BBC) October 1978

The Song of the Shirt (Film and History Project), dir. Sue Clayton and Jonathan Curling, distributed by The Other Cinema.

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ

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