Thatcher’s poisonous television legacy is still being felt
30 years ago this week Margaret Thatcher left Downing Street – but ITV has never recovered from her government’s dogma and punishment.
Death on the Rock took a heavy toll on Thames Television. What had started off as a routine report by the ITV London region’s weekday flagship current affairs programme This Week had been turned into a cause célèbre. The shooting down of an IRA gang in Gibraltar in March 1988 had been subjected to detailed journalistic scrutiny by the This Week team, led by editor Roger Bolton – and Margaret Thatcher’s government was incandescent with fury.
As Thames’ Director of Programmes I approved the production, and agreed an extended slot for transmission on Thursday April 28th with my colleagues from the other major ITV companies on the Network Controllers Group – whose weekly meetings were observed by the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA). I previewed and signed off the film, with the support of Thames’ Chief Executive, Richard Dunn, who had also viewed it, and departed for the main television market of the year, in Cannes, little realising what was going on behind the scenes.
Margaret Thatcher, at that point not having even seen the programme, was asked by a group of Japanese journalists whether she was furious about it, and replied ominously that her reaction “went deeper than that” – a tale set out in Roger Bolton’s excellent book about the whole episode, “Death on the Rock”, which I draw on throughout this piece. She encouraged her normally mild-mannered Foreign Secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, to try to bully the IBA into blocking transmission. The regulator’s chairman, Lord Thomson, firmly and repeatedly rejected Howe’s demand. Thames knew nothing of this until Howe made it all public with a press conference hours before the programme was scheduled for broadcast.
Ministerial bitterness grew after transmission, perhaps because all the prior publicity had secured an unusually large audience (6.5 million) for a This Week episode.
We’ve just won a three-year transparency battle against Michael Gove’s department.
Can you help us keep fighting government secrecy?
The main press allies of the government pitched in, with lurid and ill-judged stories and commentary, which eventually cost many of them hundreds of thousands in libel damages, including a substantial payout to one witness whom the Sun had labelled “the tart of the Gib”. Despite the ultimate successes in court, the whole fracas was a torrid reminder for a board consisting mostly of finance people – though Chairman Sir Ian Trethowan had been Director-General of the BBC – that commercial television was not a risk-free investment.
One of Howe’s supposed grounds for seeking a ban was the danger of This Week contaminating the eventual inquest into the shootings by the security services, by broadcasting interviews with witnesses. The IBA’s legal advisors robustly rejected this fear, not least because no date for an inquest had yet been announced. The Gibraltar magistrate overseeing the inquest, Felix Pizzarello, told the This Week team that he was grateful for their efforts to find witnesses, knocking on hundreds of doors to locate them. In the event, very few independent witnesses other than those we identified were ever called to testify.
The inquest itself triggered a second barrage against Thames. A 20-year-old bank clerk, Kenneth Asquez, had told two prominent Gibraltarians who interviewed him separately on This Week’s behalf, that he had seen one of the IRA gang being repeatedly shot whilst lying on the ground, although he declined to sign an affidavit to this effect.
Asquez arrived at court accompanied by one of Gibraltar’s most senior lawyer/politicians, Sir Joshua Hassan. The young man proceeded to tell the magistrate that he had been confused when he gave his account, had felt pressurised, and claimed that one of our intermediaries had implied there might be money for him if he gave us a statement. There was no truth in this - we paid none of the witnesses we interviewed. When challenged to repeat this potentially libellous claim outside the protection of court privilege, Asquez refused.
Despite Asquez’s subsequent ‘confusion’, his account of the frenzied shooting of Sean Savage – almost exactly matched the evidence submitted by one of the forensic scientists – that he had suffered 29 gunshot wounds, mostly inflicted when he was lying on the ground. As he gave two separate, but almost identical statements, to two different people representing Thames, the programme makers had taken the view he must have actually seen what he described so vividly.
None of that deterred the press pack thirsting for anything with which to berate Thames. Even the IBA was worried by Asquez’s claim of pressure, and urged Thames to set up a formal inquiry. Lord Windlesham – a former Tory cabinet minister, and also a one-time director of an ITV company – took on the task, alongside the prominent QC, Richard Rampton.
For the This Week team, fearful of being scapegoated by management, the three months of the inquiry process were very stressful. So they were relieved – indeed, exhilarated – when Windlesham published his conclusions. There were some points of criticism of the programme’s script, which we should certainly have picked up at the time, but the overall verdict was one of vindication. The editor of The Sunday Times, Andrew Neil – whose own coverage of the affair had triggered two resignations by reporters irate at the way their material was edited – rejected the findings when he appeared on a special This Week programme the day the Windlesham report was published. I suspect Neil will never change his mind about Death on the Rock.
More dispiritingly, ministers were as hostile to the Windlesham report as they had been to the programme. Geoffrey Howe rejected it as “about television, by television, for television”, shamefully dismissing his former friend and colleague with a cheap jibe. In response, Windlesham waived the fee that he had agreed with Thames.
You can buy online a copy of the Windlesham/Rampton Report and of Roger Bolton’s excellent Death on the Rock: and other stories (W H Allen, 1990), but be wary of Christopher Andrew’s authorised history of MI5, The Defence of the Realm. His account of Operation Flavius, as the security forces’ operation was code-named, manages – hilariously – to avoid any mention of the SAS, presumably to avoid breaching the Official Secrets Act, and throughout confuses This Week with its arch rival, Granada’s World in Action.
A tougher battle
The board may have been relieved by Windlesham’s verdict, but an even tougher battle was looming. Vexed as much by ITV’s laxity with regard to trade unions as by its perceived journalistic failings, Mrs Thatcher had decided to implement a seemingly eccentric recommendation from the 1986 Peacock Report on the future of the BBC that the right to operate ITV franchises be auctioned off to the highest bidder, despite the fact that ITV’s operation had been no part of his terms of reference.
Richard Dunn, as chairman of the ITV Council, would spend much of the next two years negotiating with Home Office ministers to mitigate the risk of a straight financial shoot-out, which would otherwise leave incumbents like Thames, with their heavy fixed costs, vulnerable to bids from “green field” operators.
Mrs Thatcher had fired her first warning shot across the bows at her Downing Street summit with the television industry in 1987, where she told ITV’s leaders that their business represented “the last bastion of restrictive practices”. Then, in May 1988 – just three weeks after Death on the Rock – came the creation of a new regulator, the Broadcasting Standards Council, which Howe’s wife would later chair.
Of far greater significance would be the Broadcasting Act of 1990. The Act scrapped the IBA and replaced it with the Independent Television Commission, thereby removing key friends of the established broadcasters from decision-making over licence renewal or removal. The system it created also allowed completely new companies to bid for ITV franchises, potentially – industry voices warned - without actually having to produce any actual programming of their own, as there would be a new ITV Network Centre responsible for all commissions. Dunn had persuaded the Home Office ministers, Douglas Hurd and David Mellor, to insert a safety net clause into the 1990 legislation, which ostensibly allowed the ITC to award the franchise not to the highest bidding company, but to another applicant if that bidder offered exceptional quality in terms of producing programmes (the “exceptional circumstances” clause). But there were doubts about how, or even if, this clause would operate in practice under the new regulatory regime.
Miscarriages of justice
In the midst of this high stakes manoeuvring, Frank Cvitanovich strolled into my office, offering a drama script by the Belfast journalist, Tom McGurk. The title was Dear Sarah, and the story was substantially based on the letters between Giuseppe Conlon and his wife Sarah during the years when he was wrongly imprisoned for terrorist offences. McGurk had been one of the first to cover that gross miscarriage of justice.
I had known Frank for many years – we were at one time season ticket holders at Tottenham Hotspur – but his reputation was based on his prize-winning documentaries, such as Beauty, Bonny, Daisy, Violet, Grace and Geoffrey Morton, a portrait of five shire horses and their master which was awarded the Italia Prize in 1977, the annus mirabilis for Jeremy Isaacs’ Thames, which also won that year’s TV fiction prize for The Naked Civil Servant. Frank reminded me of his beautifully understated dramatisation of John Osborne’s A Better Class of Person, starring Eileen Atkins and Alan Howard, and promised a similar treatment for this script.
I had an indirect connection with Giuseppe Conlon. Despite being a chronic invalid, Giuseppe (actually baptized Patrick, but commonly known by his Italian godfather’s name) had come to London in late 1974 to help his son, Gerry, who had been arrested with three others in connection with the IRA bombing of two pubs in Guildford (Gerry and the others spent fifteen years in prison before their convictions were overturned). From his sister-in-law’s house in West London, and on the instructions of his Belfast solicitors, Guiseppe called a well-known human rights lawyer, Bernard Simons. At the time, I was This Week’s editor, and shared a house in Highbury with Bernard (we each complained, on the assumption that our phone was tapped, that it was the other’s fault).
Grotesquely, Gerry Conlon had named his aunt as a bomb-maker. This was under fierce interrogation, enabled by the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which extended to seven days the length of time suspects could be held for questioning without legal representation. The Act had been rushed through Parliament after a separate atrocity, the bombing of two Birmingham pubs in November 1974. I can still remember Roy Jenkins, pink with anger when challenged on This Week as the POTA legislation speeded through Parliament, defending it as draconian, but necessary.
Annie Maguire’s house was raided shortly after the passage of that Act, and everyone there arrested. She, Giuseppe and five others, including her two teenage sons, were charged with handling explosives, on the flimsiest of evidence. Perhaps if he had called Bernard promptly, rather than spending the afternoon in a pub with his brother-in-law, Giuseppe might have been sitting in the law offices at Bedford Row rather than Annie’s house when the police came.
On conviction, the adults were given lengthy prison sentences. The 14-year-old boy was sentenced to 4 years and the 17-year-old to five years. The Maguire Seven, along with the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six and Judith Ward were all victims of miscarriages of justice, but nearly all served many years in prison before being released. Giuseppe, who suffered from TB, died aged 56 less than halfway through his sentence, handcuffed to a hospital bed. It later emerged that the Home Secretary, William Whitelaw, had decided on that day, January 23rd 1980, to release him on parole on grounds of ill health.
ITV regions had developed a strong record of exposing miscarriages of justice, both terrorist related and otherwise. It was McGurk himself who had first persuaded Yorkshire Television’s First Tuesday team to embark on its series of films exposing the alarming errors in the convictions of the Guildford Four and Maguire Seven. He had also worked at Granada Television, whose weekly World in Action programme (like This Week, a staple of the ITV schedule) had run several editions on the Birmingham Six.
Thames, too, had contributed other stories aside from Death on the Rock – such as a This Week episode (which I produced) that led to the release of three teenagers convicted of murdering Maxwell Confait.
The absence of recordings of police interviews had allowed false confessions to be extracted from vulnerable suspects. It was not ended until the passage of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, in 1984, legislation arising directly from the Confait case.
Thames had also commissioned a documentary in 1987, Murder on the Farm: Who Killed Carl Bridgewater?, based on the book of the same name by Paul Foot.
Dear Sarah, on the other hand, was not envisaged as a campaigning documentary: rather, a personal drama, suffused with love and patience rather than anger.
McGurk brought one other element to the table: his close working relationship with the Irish state broadcaster, RTE, which – he told us – was keen to co-produce the film with Thames. That connection, coupled with Frank’s famously economical directing style, meant that a two-hour drama would cost Thames just £500,000.
When I mentioned Dear Sarah to the board as a prospective Thames/RTE co- production, the reaction was almost wholly negative. The industry awards that Death on the Rock had gained had proved small consolation for the upheaval endured (and perhaps were seen as confirming Howe’s dismissive view of television people). Richard understandably wanted to ensure that the wishes of the board were respected; and he was also concerned about the continuing problems with the prospective Broadcasting Act.
Yet it did not seem likely that ITV would be let off the Thatcher hook by Thames ducking a difficult project with a Northern Ireland angle. Two of the other five major ITV companies (those companies with permanent seats at the Network Controllers Group, recently joined by the largest of the regional contractors, TVS) were heavily committed on that front: Granada and journalist Chris Mullin had led the campaign to release the Birmingham Six, which had just succeeded, and Yorkshire’s First Tuesday strand had recently returned to the fray in support of quashing the convictions of the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven. By comparison, Dear Sarah was a much less strictly journalistic production.
Nor was there any chance that Thames withdrawing from the McGurk project would go unnoticed, both inside and outside the ITV family. The NCG would cease to take Thames seriously as a supporter, let alone provider, of controversial programming, which would in turn undermine its ability to shape the ITV weekday schedule according to its best judgment. As London was the only region split into weekend and weekday franchises. Thames and London Weekend Television were keenly competitive, and their constant efforts to strengthen the weekday and weekend schedules were for the most part respected by the seven-day companies as despite the good work of the other regional franchises, it was the capital’s competitive tension that was the main driver of ITV’s success.
The external verdict would surely be that Thames had lost its bottle, much to the glee of those newspapers which had condemned Death on the Rock, and the dismay of those who had applauded it. Our ability to attract, perhaps even retain, journalistic talent, would be undermined. For Thames to be seen to have been cowed by hostile politicians would only encourage more hostility.
My colleagues on the NCG put aside a certain schadenfreude at the spectacle of disarray within Thames management, and tried to rescue me from my predicament. Steve Morrison of Granada and John Fairley of Yorkshire were natural allies, as their own ability to offer bold documentaries was protected by the wider spread of such projects within ITV. Andy Allan, of Central, had long worked at Thames as a producer, and knew me well. Alan Boyd of TVS was another personal friend, and even my natural rival, Greg Dyke of LWT, had earned his stripes as a current affairs producer, so understood the broader editorial considerations.
It was Fairley, as chairman of the Film Purchase Committee (all NCG members ran specialist committees, my own responsibility being finance), who offered a way forward. If RTE were to take lead responsibility for the production, then ITV could buy the finished programme from them for the planned co-production amount of £500,000, and schedule it like any other acquired film or TV series. To make this a painless decision for the other NCG members, he wanted Thames to waive its right to deliver an equivalent amount of programming from its agreed supply of drama to the schedule.
By doing so, Thames made room for another ITV company to fill the gap in the network schedule with a prestige drama of their own. Whoever filled the gap would win additional bonus points with the regulator who, before 1992, made licence renewals on the basis of hours of quality programming produced. Hence the support of my fellow controllers of programmes at the Network Controllers Group.
For Thames, there was no cost, and only a modest step back in terms of quality programming contributed. Indeed, our Finance Director would have noted that given that the complex tariff mechanism meant quality drama costs were not always fully recouped, it was a cost effective move.
But this wasn’t enough for Richard Dunn, at that point chairman of the ITV Council and its public-facing spokesman. At the next ITV top management meeting, he raised the case of the acquisition of Dear Sarah, arguing that it was an unnecessary risk for ITV to take.
I responded on behalf of the NCG, saying we were content with the proposed purchase, and had no problems with the script. The committee finessed the issue by inviting the Managing Director of Ulster Television, Desmond Smyth, to read and advise. After all, if he could live with such a programme being put out by UTV’s transmitters, who else in ITV could object?
Desmond reported that he had no objections. The film was completed by RTE, and its first broadcast was on ITV on July 2nd 1990 (it won an acting award for Stella McCusker, playing Sarah Conlon). By coincidence, a week later, the new Home Secretary David Waddington released the findings of an inquiry into the convictions of the Maguire Seven that had been set up by his predecessor after the Guildford Four convictions had been overturned in 1989. All the Maguire convictions were overturned in 1991.
Jim Sheridan’s version of Gerry Conlon’s story, In the Name of the Father, arrived on cinema screens in 1994, and earned four Oscar nominations, but by then all the heavy lifting on the multiple miscarriages of justice relating to IRA attacks had been undertaken by television, mostly by ITV (the BBC’s admirable Rough Justice series did not deal with IRA cases).
Waddington also inherited from Douglas Hurd the broadcasting legislation that was enacted in November 1990. Richard had succeeded in cementing the “exceptional circumstances” clause into the bill – the chairman-designate of the new regulator had made the clause a condition of accepting his appointment. Sadly, reliance on the clause proved to be Thames’ downfall.
Popular mythology blames the Death on the Rock controversy for the loss of Thames’ franchise, but the truth was that the company simply underbid its main rival, Carlton Television. Any hopes that Thames would win out via the “exceptional circumstances” loophole – effectively, that they would produce more high quality programming – were dashed when the regulator’s lawyers advised that such a move would be wide open to legal challenge, because it was so subjective. The clause was thus never used.
The problem for Thames was that its long track record and demonstrable capacity to deliver large volumes of high quality programming became irrelevant with the new proposed structure of ITV, whereby the guarantees that the existing main ITV companies had for providing programming to the ITV network, would be replaced by a Network Centre, deciding every single programme commission. All a new bidder had to show was that its ambitions were suitably high. The fear was bidders could win by pitching at the right cost whilst simply proposing high quality – in other words, expensive - programming, safe in the knowledge that it would never actually have to be made, if the Network Centre rejected it. One former colleague who worked for a rival told me later that he had simply copied out the Thames schedule, changing the names of all the programmes, and promising to offer them all to the new Centre. In the end, the cost of the bid would be what counted.
Richard was trapped by his loyalty to long-term staff, which made Thames highly vulnerable to a greenfield bidder with no fixed costs. When he recruited me to re-join Thames in 1986, his Finance Director, Derek Hunt, had asked me how much of ITV’s Teddington production site I really needed as Director of Programmes. I told him that, based on my four years as an independent producer, I would need none of it, as there were ample alternatives – studios, editing, dubbing and so on – available in the market. Most of the £35 million annual cost of its Teddington production studios was simply surplus to requirements.
To demonstrate my point, I assigned one of my departmental heads a pure cash budget, rather than a mixture of cash and resources. His output was highly successful without ever needing to use Thames’ facilities. When I decided to convert our successful drama series The Bill from 13 hourly episodes to 104 half-hourly, I insisted that independent producers be allowed to bid for the contract. Thames’ production department only won the tender by setting up a standalone unit in Merton, to be closed down as and when the programme was cancelled.
By the time Thames’ ITV licence renewal came around, the losses at Teddington became an impossible burden if a competitive bid were to be made. The local management offered to reduce their 1,250 headcount to 750 in order to allow a bid of £32.7 million, but Carlton Television bid £43.2 million. After Carlton was declared the winner, all but 27 of the staff at Teddington lost their jobs.
Frustratingly, the £32.7 million would have been more than enough to win the London weekend franchise from a low-bidding LWT, and we had prepared a strong application; but Richard chose to sign a non-aggression pact with LWT’s Chairman, Christopher Bland, and the opportunity was missed (in fact, Bland had secretly agreed a deal with Carlton, to help them win against Thames, whose monopoly of TV newsgathering resources in London had long irked the weekend contractor).
The results of the auction were not announced till October 16th 1991. In a remarkable scoop, Ray Snoddy of the Financial Times correctly forecast the ousting of the four “T” incumbents: Thames, TVS, TSW and TV-AM. The last was the breakfast franchise, run by Bruce Gyngell, to whom Mrs Thatcher wrote a personal note of regret, saying she was mystified and heartbroken that he had lost his licence as a result of legislation she had introduced. Richard received no such note.
It was a grey-faced Richard who brought the fateful fax the few yards from his office to the assembled Thames board. He and I went immediately to two mass meetings of staff to spell out the consequences, and the details of the redundancy terms being offered. The news was received in silence. Management had failed them. Now they would pay the price.
By then, of course, Mrs Thatcher had ceased to be Prime Minister, her advisers having miscalculated her support when Michael Heseltine challenged her for the Tory Party leadership. One of my responsibilities as Director of Programmes at Thames was to decide, on weekdays, when to suspend the published schedule in order to run open-ended news coverage from ITN. November 22nd 1990 was just such a day. Thames had, perhaps surprisingly, outlived her premiership: but not her poisonous legacy.
Only those actually involved in production of continuing programmes would survive the end of the franchise (we subsequently managed to place This Is Your Life with the BBC, while ITV retained The Bill and Wish You Were Here, and Carlton took over the presentation department). Richard would go on to head Pearson Television, which bought Thames for £100 million, such value largely being derived, not from the residual production contracts or library assets, but the 10% stake in the Luxembourg satellite company SES, which Richard had had the prescience to acquire, when the rest of the industry was focused on a joint BBC/ITV satellite venture that he was sure would collapse (it did).
Sadly, Richard died suddenly, aged 54, soon after he was dislodged from Pearson by the appointment as Chief Executive of Greg Dyke (who had been ousted from LWT when Granada acquired it). Christopher Bland also departed LWT: like the other recipients of golden handcuff deals granted to key executives in order to safeguard LWT’s franchise renewal, he had many millions to comfort him. Within a few years, he had been appointed Chairman of the BBC Governors, choosing Greg as his Director-General when John Birt (Greg’s predecessor as LWT Director of Programmes) retired: a small world.
The Granada/LWT deal was one of a dozen transactions after the new franchises came into operation in 1993, whereby ITV progressively consolidated all the English and Welsh franchises into a single company, ITV plc. None of that would have been possible before the 1990 Broadcasting Act. The carefully balanced federal structure collapsed, and with it the distinctive regional voices, in drama and entertainment, that that structure had nurtured and enabled. The inevitable result was that ITV, at every opportunity, reduced the scale and scope of its regional coverage: but that was only part of a grim story.
The sealed bid auction had been a farce, with several incumbents bidding minimal amounts for the right to operate the franchise once they had concluded there was no serious competitor for their areas. LWT bid £7.5 million, calculating that its main rival, which bid £35.4 million, would fail to meet the statutory “quality threshold”. Granada likewise bid just £9 million to see off a competitor bidding £35 million. Central and Scottish each bid £2,000, having worked out they faced no competitor – even the £2,000 was debated internally, with executives not sure whether the requirement that bids be in multiples of £1,000 meant that the minimum was therefore £2,000. Channel Television got that right, bidding just £1,000 to renew its franchise.
UTV, bidding £1million, saw off competitors bidding twice and three times as much, one failed for over-bidding, the other for not meeting the quality threshold. Two incumbents were failed by the new Independent Television Commission for bidding too much, three others survived by outbidding their competition; but – as a consequence – they became early victims in the consolidation process, subsumed by the more strongly financed low bidders.
Many people had suggested to Nigel Lawson, the Chancellor, that it would give greater certainty to the auction if the regulator decided the right price, and then chose on quality terms between those willing to pay that price. Lawson’s dogmatic preference was for a showdown blind auction, which allowed some incumbents to pay almost nothing, having found ways to scare off the competition, and led to others over-bidding and either being disqualified or subsequently sunk by debt.
Thatcher, of course, wanted to punish ITV for its past inefficiencies – and perhaps also, for Death on the Rock.
The amount generated by the auction for the public purse was double the revenue raised by the previous ITV levy. But the impact was so wildly different between companies that it proved deeply destabilizing.
The ITC persuaded the Treasury to abandon it, and there never was another auction.
In any case, the winners quickly negotiated their payments down, as the value of ITV licences dropped in line with the spread of new channels. Within two decades of the auction, the deemed value of the spectrum occupied by ITV had fallen from £340 million a year to £25 million.
Having abandoned the blind auction system, subsequently, the regulator set a price for each franchise, and invited the incumbent to stay in place.
Yet now that incumbents could so easily dispose of any challengers, the franchises effectively became freeholds, and so the need to impress the regulator with quality programming disappeared.
With the passage of the 2003 Communications Act (which saw Ofcom become the over-arching media regulator), the withdrawal from old-style public service broadcasting obligations became formalised in law. This Week had not survived beyond 1992, but was in due course followed into the TV graveyard by Weekend World, First Tuesday and World in Action. Current affairs programming barely exists in today’s ITV. Investigative documentaries are as rare as hen’s teeth. Schools, adult education, religion, arts and children’s have all disappeared from the ITV schedule.
News at Ten was exiled from its slot for nine years, without the regulator being able to do more than protest. Ofcom was bullied into allowing a huge reduction in regional output during a short-term advertising recession: the economy recovered, ITV has paid out £5 billion in dividends subsequently, but the cuts have never been restored. Even drama output – once the backbone of a successful ITV schedule – has fallen from seven hours a week to two hours. The 42% share of viewing captured by ITV in 1992 now stands at 15%.
Perhaps all that public service output would have disappeared anyway, under the pressure of channel proliferation and online provision of content: Channel 4 has also abandoned virtually all the public service content quotas that so distinguished the first twenty-five years of its life.
Yet it is impossible to ignore the role of the 1990 Act in converting a commercial broadcaster acclaimed for the range and quality of its programming, and committed to high levels of rigorously monitored public service content, into the ITV of today, commercially successful, but creatively limited, and spending less on original UK content in relative terms than it did thirty years ago. It is particularly hard to imagine today’s ITV broadcasting a Death on the Rock, let alone a Dear Sarah.
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