Television Review

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The Independent Culture
GENERALLY SPEAKING, it seems clear that secrecy - as in obsessive state secrecy, etc - is bad, while privacy - as in protection of privacy - is good. But drawing the line is not always easy, and what seems laudably private from one angle, looks culpably secret from another. When doctors Margaret Jack- son and Mary Barton began pioneering work in artificial insemination by donor (AID), in the late 1930s, it was plain to them that the whole process needed to be kept under wraps.

On last night's Witness (C4), one of Margaret Jackson's assistants at her clinic in Exeter, outlined the procedures for obtaining sperm. A phone- call to a man in an outlying district, a plain-wrapped parcel on the bus, a handover at the bus station. The final stage would see the courier leaving the parcel in Dr Jackson's conservatory, behind the third geranium on the right. The idea behind all this was that no outside observer would be able to discern the chain.

Sixty years on, this Le Carre-ish ritual looks absurd; but the reactions to Jackson's publication of her work in 1945, suggested that she was right to be careful. Letters to the British Medical Journal accused her of treating people like cattle, and demanded to know "What type of individual can the donor be who hawks his seminal fluid round the countryside...?" The argument got mixed up with eugenics, with talk of breeding a generation of supermen, babies to guard the secrets of the atomic bomb. In this atmosphere, who would want any connection with artificial insemination noised about the place?

But the thrust of this programme, "Secret Fathers", was to argue that Jackson and Barton's obsession with anonymity unwittingly damaged families, and particularly the children. Christine discovered recently that she was conceived through AID, and seemed to feel that the secret of her conception explained everything that had gone wrong between her and her mother. Oliver, whose two children were conceived through AID, spoke of his sense of being excluded from the family - his marriage had eventually broken down. David, his son, talked of families "poisoned" by secrets; he laughed mercilessly at a recording of Mary Barton testifying before a government committee when she explained that, in her experience, if donors were known to a couple it could harm the marriage.

Those who, like Christine, feel robbed of their identities deserve some compassion, but their anger was misplaced. It was hard to see how Jackson and Barton could have acted differently, unless they had abandoned their work altogether. The programme tried to be balanced, but the need to have an outrage to present to the viewers got the better of it. It was riddled with smugness about our modern, enlightened ways: the horrified letters of the Forties were read out in fogeyish voices above black-and-white footage of a gloomy corridor, apparently intended to illustrate how narrow and dark these people's minds must have been. Well, the makers are entitled to feel smug about how much wiser we are than our ancestors; but they really ought to keep it to themselves.

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