Panorama – a sinking flagship?
A former Panorama reporter discusses how the BBC's main current affairs show is going down.
Panorama, what the BBC still calls the ‘flagship’ of its TV current affairs fleet, now sails out to the nation late on a Sunday night.
Except that it doesn’t even do that: for half of July, for all of August and virtually the whole of September in 2002 you would have searched BBC1 in vain for this phantom vessel, this Marie Celeste of broadcasting, lost in a maritime mist. For all that time Panorama has been off the air.
Today Panorama is no longer a regular, reliable event; instead, it runs in three separate blocs of programmes, with gaps in between. And before the BBC pipes up to say that there’s always room for a ‘special’ when the news demands it, let’s remember what happened a year ago on 11 September. Was it Panorama that mounted a special programme that night? No, it was not; a scratch crew from the rest of current affairs had to do the job instead. That’s not the way Panorama handled the Cuban missile crisis 40 years ago.
Currently, the BBC is allowing a programme that should be at the heart of its schedule to be pushed to the margins. It’s a shame, particularly as Panorama is still producing some excellent programmes, like those about collusion between our security forces and the Protestant terror gangs in Northern Ireland. It is sad to see Panorama so reduced when the programme has been so important to Britain and the BBC.
Back in the early 1950s when Panorama was founded, the snooty BBC mandarins thought TV was just about entertainment – chorus girls and light music. Anything more serious was only for Radio. Only late in the day was it realised that the basic idea of a public service broadcaster offering information and education along with entertainment applied to TV just as much as the wireless.
And so, in 1955, two years after it began, Panorama was transformed from a ragbag of mostly lighter items into the ‘window on the world’, through which viewers could, for the first time on TV, see and hear the important things that were happening around them.
Soon Panorama was grappling with Suez, with the Russian invasion of Hungary, and with Communist conspiracy inside some trade unions. And even though ITV was now competing in a highly commercial way, Panorama was winning. Soon after its revamp it had 11.5million viewers. As its producer Michael Peacock wrote: ‘Here is a curious phenomenon: a current affairs programme which sets out to inform and is on the whole a pretty serious one, attracting more viewers than most programmes based on pure entertainment.’
Why did it work so well? In the beginning, because there wasn’t much competition. But over at the new ITV there was soon This Week, and at the BBC’s Lime Grove studios Panorama was spawning programmes like Tonight, all of them trying to take the wind out of the flagship’s sails. That they didn’t succeed was down to a changing but often brilliant team of reporters, producers and editors, fronted for a decade by that doyen of presenters Richard Dimbleby.
Woodrow Wyatt, the first proper BBC television reporter, was soon joined by Chris Chataway, Robin Day, Ludovic Kennedy, Robert Kee, John Morgan and James Mossman. They were giants, who would all make tremendous careers for themselves in and out of TV.
But what about Panorama’s reporters today? There are outstanding talents there – among them John Ware, Jane Corbin and Peter Taylor. But they are not the famous household names whose mere presence on Panorama requires us to tune in, as they should be.
The support and backing that should be given to the programme’s reporters seems to be lacking. Tom Mangold is the longest serving Panorama reporter there has ever been, with a string of programmes on terrorism, defence and security matters to his credit. But Panorama has failed to hold him, and Mangold normally reports for newer, often interesting, but fundamentally less important programmes like Four by Four.
BBC1’s Controller Lorraine Heggessey, herself a feisty former Panorama producer, says that everything she’s doing to Panorama is for its own good. She’s tucked it away on a Sunday night, she says, to protect it from the fierce storms of competition which would otherwise sweep away its audience.
But what would be so terrible if Panorama, restored to a peaktime slot on a weekday evening, didn’t attract more than, say, three or four million viewers? Even if it meant that programmes which followed Panorama did less well in audience terms, why does that matter? The BBC gets £2.5billion from the licence fee, and, unlike ITV, it doesn’t depend on advertising revenue. The Corporation has got our money through a poll tax; why doesn’t it accept that part of that deal should be a major current affairs programme every week (give it bank holidays off) that will keep us informed and interested in an entertaining way about the big issues of the day?
What is needed is a change of heart at the top of the BBC. When Greg Dyke, its enthusiastic director general, next gets together with Lorraine Heggessey and director of television Jana Bennett, they need to think again about their priorities. Then they should send orders to Panorama’s crew to sail out of the Sunday night shadows into the daylight.
And then, once again, the best journalists inside and outside the BBC will be clamouring to climb aboard the flagship and earn Panorama the sort of reputation it used to enjoy.
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