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Elite science and the BBC: a 1950s contest of ownership

  • ALLAN JONES (a1)
Abstract

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the elite world of institutional British science attempted to take control of the BBC's management of science broadcasting. Delegations of scientists met BBC managers to propose an increased role for scientists in planning science broadcasts to a degree that threatened to compromise the BBC's authority and autonomy. The culmination was a set of proposals to the Pilkington Committee in 1960, principally from the Royal Society and the British Association for the Advancement of Science, under which a scientist-manager was to be appointed head of a unified science division in the BBC. BBC managers resisted these proposals. The outcome, in 1964, was a compromise giving the scientists little of what they wanted, and proving practically and strategically useful for the BBC. The article frames the story as a contest of jurisdiction between elite science and the BBC, and draws on scholarship relating to the social nature of authority and professions, and to the popularization of science. It shows the fundamentally different beliefs held by the scientists and the BBC about the purpose of science broadcasts and about the nature of the audience. The historical narrative is based on unpublished archive documents, and it contributes to the small but growing body of work on the historical background to the presentation of science in the broadcast media.

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2 Part of the story appears briefly in Chapter 7 of Boon, op. cit. (1).

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4 See, for example, Tanner, A.H., ‘Agenda building, source selection, and health news at local television stations’, Science Communication (2004) 25, pp. 350363. Bienvenido, Leon, ‘Science related information in European television: a study of prime-time news’, Public Understanding of Science (2008) 17, pp. 443460. Murcott, Toby, ‘Broadcasting science’, in Mark Brake, L. and Weitkamp, Emma (eds.), Introducing Science Communication, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, pp. 105127. Reid, Grace, ‘The television drama-documentary (dramadoc) as a form of science communication’, Public Understanding of Science (2012) 21, pp. 9841001. Lehmkuhl, Markus, Karamanidou, Christina, Mörä, Tuomo, Petkova, Kristina, Trench, Brian and AVSA-Team, ‘Scheduling science on television: a comparative analysis of the representations of science in 11 European countries’, Public Understanding of Science (2012) 21, pp. 10021018.

5 Edgerton, David, ‘C.P. Snow as anti-historian of British science: revisiting the technocratic moment, 1959–1964’, History of Science (2005) 43, pp. 187208.

6 Reith, John, Into the Wind, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1949, p. 299.

7 Reith, John, Broadcast over Britain, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1924, p. 34.

8 Burns, Tom, The BBC: Public Institution and Private World, London: Macmillan, 1977, p. 122.

9 BBC Written Archives Centre (hereafter WAC) R34/1022/2, untitled memo by R.d'A Marriott, July 1956, quoted in Carpenter, Humphrey, The Envy of the World, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1996, p. 167.

10 Carpenter, op. cit. (9), p. 170.

11 Burns op. cit. (8), p. 32.

12 Jones, Allan, ‘Five 1951 BBC broadcasts on automatic calculating machines’, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing (2004) 26(2), pp. 315.

13 Purser, Philip, ‘Aubrey Singer: controller of BBC2, head of radio and deputy director general of the Corporation’, The Guardian, 28 May 2007, p. 28.

14 Boon, op. cit. (1), pp. 215–219.

15 BBC WAC R6/239/1, note from Harman Grisewood (chief assistant to the director general) to Board of Managers, 20 October 1960. The sections and individuals listed by Grisewood were Archibald Clow's unit in Talks; Schools and Further Education science producers (of whom there were eleven, covering radio and television schools broadcasts); James McCloy (senior science producer in Television Talks); Aubrey Singer in Television Outside Broadcasts; B. Silcock in European Talks; the science correspondent in News. Grisewood omitted to mention Nesta Pain and Isa Benzie, two producers with a long history at the BBC of producing dramatic presentations relating to science, medicine and health, and the many producers in the BBC regions who occasionally produced science broadcasts.

16 Singer, Aubrey, Science Broadcasting, BBC lunchtime lectures, fourth series, October 1965–April 1966, London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1966, pp. 1213.

17 Hood, Stuart, A Survey of Television, London: Heinemann, 1967, pp. 4950, quoted in Burns, op. cit. (8), p. 151.

18 Burns, op. cit. (8), p. 32.

19 See, for example, Abbott, Andrew, The System of Professions, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988. Freidson, Eliot, Professionalism Reborn: Theory, Prophecy and Policy, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994. Johnson, Terrence, Professions and Power, London: Macmillan, 1972. Macdonald, Keith, The Sociology of the Professions, London: Sage, 1995. Torstendahl, Rolf and Burrage, Michael (eds.), The Formation of Professions, London: Sage, 1990.

20 Abbott, op. cit. (19), p. 87.

21 Abbott, op. cit. (19), p. 2.

22 Johnson, op. cit. (19), p. 43.

23 Freidson, op. cit. (19), p. 71.

24 Freidson, op. cit. (19), p. 70.

25 Vig, Norman J., Science and Technology in British Politics, Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1968, p. 2. Agar, Jon, ‘Science and information technology’, in Hollowell, Jonathan (ed.), Britain since 1945, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003, pp. 347364, 349.

26 Agar, op. cit. (25), p. 348.

27 Agar, op. cit. (25), p. 348.

28 Vig, op. cit. (25), pp. 30–31.

29 The Times, 4 November 1957, p. 10.

30 Tomlinson, Jim, ‘Economic “decline” in post-war Britain’, in Addison, Paul and Jones, Harriet, A Companion to Contemporary Britain 1939–2000, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005, pp. 164179, 164.

31 Tomlinson, op. cit. (30), pp. 165–166.

32 Edgerton, op. cit. (5), p. 187.

33 Snow, Charles P., The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959.

34 BBC WAC R6/239/1, paper from G.V. Allen, secretary of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 13 December 1960.

35 ‘Science and business: Sir Alexander Fleck's case for partnership’, The Times, 28 August 1958, p. 9.

36 The British government's Advisory Council on Scientific Policy was established in February 1947. Its function was to advise the lord president of the council, who presided over meetings of the Privy Council. ‘Council on Scientific Policy’, The Times, 11 February 1947, p. 7. It was abolished in 1964.

37 BBC WAC M2/8/5, General Advisory Council paper GAC228, ‘Science Broadcasting’, 2 April 1959, p. 3.

38 BBC WAC M2/8/5, General Advisory Council paper GAC228, ‘Science Broadcasting’, 2 April 1959, p. 3.

39 The General Advisory Council was one of several BBC advisory councils. Its membership, as with other BBC advisory bodies, comprised BBC and non-BBC personnel, and meetings were held three or four times a year to survey recent and forthcoming broadcasts. Advisory councils had no role in formulating programmes or programme policy. The BBC is required by its charter to have such bodies.

40 BBC WAC M2/8/5, General Advisory Council paper GAC228, ‘Science Broadcasting’, 2 April 1959, p. 1.

41 BBC WAC M2/8/5, General Advisory Council paper GAC228, ‘Science Broadcasting’, 2 April 1959.

42 BBC WAC M2/8/5, General Advisory Council paper GAC228, ‘Science Broadcasting’, 2 April 1959, p. 1.

43 BBC WAC R6/239/1, General Advisory Council Minutes of a meeting on 29 April 1959, Annexe on ‘Science Broadcasting’, p. 3.

44 BBC WAC R6/239/1, General Advisory Council Minutes of a meeting on 29 April 1959, Annexe on ‘Science Broadcasting’, p. 5.

45 BBC WAC R6/239/1, General Advisory Council Minutes of a meeting on 29 April 1959, Annexe on ‘Science Broadcasting’, p. 5.

46 BBC WAC R6/239/1, General Advisory Council Minutes of a meeting on 29 April 1959, Annexe on ‘Science Broadcasting’, p. 5.

47 Documents relating to the 1943–1944 interventions are mostly contained in BBC WAC R51/529. Documents relating to the 1949 interventions are mostly contained in R6/34.

48 Allan Jones, ‘Clogging the machinery: the BBC's experiment in science coordination, 1949–1953’, Media History (forthcoming).

49 See, for example, Gregory, Jane and Miller, Steve, Science in Public, New York: Plenum, 1998; Gregory, Jane and Lock, Simon J., ‘The evolution of “public understanding of science”: public engagement as a tool of science policy’, Sociology Compass (2008) 2(4), pp. 12521265. Ziman, John, ‘Public understanding of science’, Science, Technology and Human Values (1991) 16, pp. 99105.

50 New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, revised 3rd edn, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

51 Barnes, Barry and Edge, David, Science in Context: Readings in the Sociology of Science, Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1982, pp. 56.

52 Bloor, David, Knowledge and Social Imagery, 2nd edn (first edn 1976), Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991, p. 53.

53 Sismondo, Sergio, An Introduction to Science and Technology Studies, 2nd edn, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2010, p. 173.

54 See, for example, Bucchi, Massimiano, ‘When scientists turn to the public: alternative routes in science communication’, Public Understanding of Science (1996) 5, pp. 375394. Dornan, Christopher, ‘Some problems of conceptualizing the issue of “science and the media”’, Critical Studies in Mass Communication (1990) 7, p. 4871. Gregory, Jane, ‘Scientists communicating’, in Holliman, Richard et al. (eds.), Practising Science Communication in the Information Age, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 318. Sismondo, op. cit. (53), p. 173.

55 Lewenstein, Bruce V., ‘The meaning of “public understanding of science” in the United States after World War II’, Public Understanding of Science (2002) 1, pp. 4668.

56 Mellor, Felicity, ‘Between fact and fiction: demarcating science from non-science in popular physics books’, Social Studies of Science (2003) 33, pp. 509538, 530.

57 Bourdieu, Pierre, ‘The specificity of the scientific field and the social conditions of the progress of reason’ (abridged 1998, first published 1975), in Biagioli, Mario (ed.), The Science Studies Reader, London: Routledge, 1999, pp. 3150, 34.

58 Fuller, Steve, The Philosophy of Science and Technology Studies, London: Routledge, 2006, p. 16.

59 Collins, Harry, Chapter 4 ofOlsen, Jan-Kyrre Berg and Selinger, Evan (eds.), Philosophy of Technology: 5 Questions, New York: Automatic Press, 2007, p. 3143.

60 Gregory and Lock, op. cit. (49).

61 Collins, Harry and Evans, Robert, ‘The third wave of science studies: studies of expertise and experience’, Social Studies of Science (2002) 32, pp. 235296, 259.

62 Collins, op. cit. (59), p. 37.

63 Polanyi, Michael, ‘The republic of science: its political and economic theory’, Minerva (1962) 1, pp. 5474, 56.

64 Polanyi, op. cit. (63), pp. 57–59.

65 Polanyi, op. cit. (63), p. 55.

66 Polanyi, op. cit. (63), p. 54.

67 Nye, Mary Jo, Michael Polanyi and His Generation: Origins of the Social Construction of Science, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011, p. 83.

68 Polanyi, Michael, ‘The autonomy of science’, Scientific Monthly (1945) 60, pp. 141150, 147–149.

69 Nye, op. cit. (67), p. 255.

70 Polanyi, op. cit. (63), p. 141.

71 Polanyi, op. cit. (63), p. 60.

72 Lakatos, Imre and Feyerabend, Paul, For and against Method: Including Lakatos's Lectures on Scientific Method and the Lakatos–Feyerabend Correspondence, ed. Motterlini, Matteo, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999, p. 27.

73 Lakatos and Feyerabend, op. cit. (72), p. 28.

74 Fuller, Steve, Kuhn vs Popper: The Struggle for the Soul of Science, Cambridge: Icon, 2003, p. 46.

75 Lengwiler, Martin, ‘Participatory approaches in science and technology: historical origins and current practices in critical perspective’, Science, Technology, and Human Values (2008) 33, pp. 186200, 193.

76 Nye, op. cit. (67), p. 115.

77 Nye, op. cit. (67), p. 204.

78 Brock, William H., ‘Todd, Alexander Robertus, Baron Todd (1907–1997)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, OxfordUniversity Press, 2004, available at www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/64697, accessed 9 January 2012.

79 Milland, Jeffrey, ‘Courting Malvolio: the background to the Pilkington Committee on Broadcasting, 1960–62’, Contemporary British History (2004) 18, pp. 76102, 79.

80 Milland, op. cit. (79), p. 88.

81 Milland, op. cit. (79), p. 95.

82 Milland, op. cit. (79), p. 78.

83 BBC WAC R6/239/1, letter, 15 October 1962, from D.C. Martin (executive secretary of the Royal Society) to R.d'A. Marriott, assistant director of sound broadcasting. Also R6/239/1, memo from head of Talks (Sound) to ADSB, 14 September 1962. This memo names the authors of the Royal Society's submission as Sir Harrie Massey, Lord Fleck, Professor C.A. Waddington and Professor M. Abercrombie.

84 Pilkington, William H., Report of the Committee on Broadcasting, London: HMSO, 1962. The ‘H’ in Pilkington's name stood for Henry, but he was generally known as ‘Harry’.

85 Pilkington, op. cit. (84). The two paragraphs about science broadcasting are paragraphs 325 and 326.

86 BBC WAC R6/239, memo from assistant director of sound broadcasting (R.d'A Marriott) to head of Talks (Sound), 9 August 1962.

87 BBC WAC R6/239/1, notes of a meeting held at Burlington House, 12 December 1962.

88 BBC WAC R6/239/1, notes of a meeting held at Burlington House, 12 December 1962. The scientists had calculated (from BBC data) that about 5 per cent of radio and 6 per cent of television output were devoted to science.

89 BBC WAC R6/239/1, notes of a meeting held at Burlington House, 12 December 1962.

90 BBC WAC R6/239/1, notes of a meeting held at Burlington House, 12 December 1962.

91 BBC WAC R6/239/1, notes of a meeting held at Burlington House, 12 December 1962.

92 BBC WAC R6/239/1, notes of a meeting held at Burlington House, 12 December 1962.

93 BBC representatives pointed out that a single high-level scientist could not oversee both radio and television broadcasts. A practical implementation of the scientists' proposal would require two high-level scientists, one for radio and the other for television. Parallel managerial posts for radio and television were usual in the BBC at this time.

94 BBC WAC R6/239, notes of a meeting held at Burlington House, 12 December 1962.

95 BBC WAC R6/239, notes of a meeting held at Burlington House, 12 December 1962.

96 BBC WAC R1/99/1, Board of Governors Papers 1963, 1–20, R.d'A. Marriott and S. Hood, ‘Science Broadcasting’, 14 January 1963.

97 BBC WAC R1/99/1, Board of Governors Papers 1963, 1–20, R.d'A. Marriott and S. Hood, ‘Science Broadcasting’, 14 January 1963.

98 BBC WAC R1/99/1, Board of Governors Papers 1963, 1–20, R.d'A. Marriott and S. Hood, ‘Science Broadcasting’, 14 January 1963.

99 BBC WAC R1/99/1, Board of Governors Papers 1963, 1–20, R.d'A. Marriott and S. Hood, ‘Science Broadcasting’, 14 January 1963.

100 BBC WAC R6/239/3, memo from R.D. Pendlebury to BBC heads and controllers, 1 October 1965.

101 BBC WAC R6/239/1, Board of Governors Papers 50–69, G.67/64. The affiliations of the members of the group were as follows. Haddow was director of the Chester Beatty Research Institute; Bragg was director of the Royal Institution; Bondi was professor of applied mathematics at King's College London; Glass was in the Department of Sociology at the London School of Economics; Kendrew was on the Medical Research Council (he shared the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1962 with Max Perutz); Linstead was rector of Imperial College of Science and Technology; Swann was in the Department of Zoology at Edinburgh University; Tett was chairman of Esso Petroleum.

102 BBC WAC R6/239/3, memo from R.D. Pendlebury (secretary of the Consultative Group) to D. Tel, D.B.B, 9 November 1965.

103 Paulu, Burton, Television and Radio in the United Kingdom, London: Macmillan, 1981, p. 140. In the context of advisory councils and committees, Paulu writes of the National Councils for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, for which members are selected ‘not directly by the BBC, as are all other council and committee members’.

104 BBC WAC R6/239/3, memo from head of Talks and Current Affairs to programme editor, Arts, Sci & Docs(s): editor, Science Talks(s), October 1965.

105 BBC WAC R6/239/3, memo from assistant director of sound broadcasting to director of sound broadcasting, 11 October 1965.

106 BBC WAC R6/239/3, memo from head of Talks and Current Affairs to programme editor, Arts, Sci & Docs(s): editor, Science Talks(s), October 1965.

107 BBC WAC R6/239/3, memo from head of Talks and Current Affairs to programme editor, Arts, Sci & Docs(s): editor, Science Talks(s), October 1965.

108 BBC WAC R6/239/3, memo from head of Talks and Current Affairs to programme editor, Arts, Sci & Docs(s): editor, Science Talks(s), October 1965.

109 BBC WAC R6/239/3, memo from head of Talks and Current Affairs to programme editor, Arts, Sci & Docs(s): editor, Science Talks(s), October 1965.

110 BBC WAC R6/239/3, memo from assistant director of sound broadcasting to director of sound broadcasting, 11 October 1965.

111 BBC WAC R6/239/3, memos from R. Pendlebury, 22 April 1966 and 24 October 1966, and from director of sound broadcasting, 2 November 1966.

112 A news story by journalist Jonathan Margolis (‘Heretics’, Sunday Times, 3 July 1994) quotes Lewis Wolpert (a member of the Consultative Group) as saying that he tried to have the television series Heretics (on heretical living scientists such as Rupert Sheldrake) stopped, ‘but then that committee was disbanded’. A personal communication from former BBC science producer Martin Redfern, 29 April 2008, suggests that John Birt may have been instrumental in disbanding the group.

113 Whitley, Richard, ‘Knowledge producers and knowledge acquirers’, in Shinn, Terry and Whitley, Richard (eds.), Expository Science: Forms and Functions of Popularisation, Dordrecht: Reidel, 1985, pp. 328, 4, 6.

114 Whitley, op. cit. (113), p. 120.

115 Whitley, op. cit. (113), p. 120.

116 Singer, op. cit. (16), p. 14.

117 Singer, op. cit. (16), p. 14.

118 Singer, op. cit. (16), p. 9.

119 BBC WAC R51/523/1, undated memo from Mary Adams to Ian Cox, probably June 1936. For more on Mary Adams, an early luminary of BBC science production, see Jones, Allan, ‘Mary Adams and the producer's role in early BBC science broadcasts’, Public Understanding of Science (2012) 21, pp. 968983.

120 Singer, op. cit. (16), p. 8. Emphasis in the original.

121 Burns, op. cit. (8), p. 32.

122 Singer, op. cit. (16), pp. 10–11.

123 BBC WAC R6/239/3, memo from head of Talks and Current Affairs to programme editor, Arts, Sci & Docs(s): editor, Science Talks(s), October 1965.

The author wishes to thank the BBC Written Archives Centre at Caversham, Reading, UK, for permission to quote from BBC documents, and also the anonymous reviewers of an earlier version of this article.

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