TV’s narrowing vision

Richard Lindley's chronicle on Panorama contrasts the self-assured TV journalism of the past to today's rather flaccid version.

Luke Robins-Grace

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Topics Politics

Panorama, once the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme, approaches its fiftieth birthday this year. But instead of receiving a fanfare, it is limping into its fiftieth year amid much uncertainty about the role of current affairs broadcasting.

Richard Lindley, reporter for Panorama from 1973 to 1988, has written a timely chronicle, Panorama: Fifty Years of Pride and Paranoia, which makes some insightful contrasts between the self-assured current affairs journalism of the past and the rather flaccid version today.

Lindley tells fantastic tales of swashbuckling reporters evading KGB agents and crossing swamps while making sharp analyses of the chaotic world around them. He reminds us why Panorama was regarded as a great institution – Richard Dimbleby’s presenting, the coverage of the Falklands War, the famous Diana interview.

He doesn’t give an in-depth explanation of what went wrong – but what emerges is a fairly simple message: programme makers need to regain the backbone they had in the past.

Of course there were times when BBC bosses were unsure about Panorama’s role. Current affairs didn’t really exist 50 years ago and TV was a new medium. Producers experimented with different formats and presenters, as viewing figures fluctuated and the programme’s prestige went through various peaks and troughs. But such moments of self-doubt are very different from today’s insecurity about current affairs.

Past discussions tended to centre on presentation. Lindley writes that in the 1970s mixing words with pictures (something that is now de rigeur) was sometimes controversial. ‘Too many words and you’re giving an arid illustrated lecture; but too few, and all you’ve got is a montage…not many ideas – let alone any analysis of them.’ (1)

Compare this with the current mania about ‘connecting’ with viewers and you can see how the debate has changed. Earlier this year reports suggested that the BBC would spruce up political coverage by focusing less on politics with a big P and more on health and education (2). Panorama has been relegated to the Sunday night slot and the future of programmes like Question Time and On The Record hangs in the balance (3).

There has also been a change in the role of the reporter. Lindley recalls Panorama producer Peter Bate taking exception to the sense of ‘reporter power’ in 1979. According to Bate: ‘They were often just holding up the story, or there in the film because the producer couldn’t think of a more televisual way of saying something.’ (4) By contrast, Lindley justified the on-screen reporter’s role in terms of providing a central point to the story, to interpret events and analyse what they meant.

That was the debate then. Discussions now focus on the reporter becoming emotionally attached to a story and even becoming part of the story. When the BBC reporter Martin Bell reported from Bosnia in 1993, giving an impassioned, emotional plea for Western intervention, Glenwn Benson, Panorama editor at the time, said: ‘coverage of the diplomatic and military details can induce…a kind of bias against understanding…. Bell’s programme corrected that by reclaiming viewers’ attention so dramatically to the subject.’ (5)

Here Bell was praised, not for explaining the events, but for capturing viewers’ attention. The importance of the events themselves becomes degraded – as Lindley comments: ‘The whole point of Panorama is to dig deeper than that, not just to emote.’ (6)

If past debates focused on how best to communicate content, current discussions suggest a lack of conviction in the importance of content itself. Many now argue that the reporter is needed to provoke engagement with the viewer.

The role of the interview in current affairs has also changed. Many now see the multimedia mess of vox pops and ‘email us your views’ as somehow more engaging and real than interviews with traditional political figures.

Lindley remembers Robin Day saying, in a moment of frustration, ‘I shouldn’t be interviewing anyone of less than cabinet status’. Pompous perhaps – but where such an attitude would be seen as elitist or out of touch today, Day’s comment captured his confidence in the value of current affairs. The news didn’t have to be made digestible by canvassing the high street in search of the nation’s opinion.

Lindley sometimes seems to sneer at modern TV techniques and he romanticises old school journalistic values – but it is hard to ignore the fact that there is a crisis in the direction and value of contemporary current affairs. His solution is a useful starting point. As a strong believer in non-commercial broadcasting, Lindley says that, rather than preoccupy itself with ratings, the BBC should remember that communicating world events is a matter of public duty and should give Panorama a secure week-day slot.

Lindley recognises that it is not the journalistic techniques of the previous generation that turns people off – just as the new techniques of interactivity and emoting often don’t switch us on. What we have now are not just producers who lack a positive vision of how current affairs should be broadcast, but a dearth of confidence about communicating world events.

One problem with Lindley’s analysis is that he doesn’t seem to recognise how much the political environment has changed. With election turnouts at an historic low and politicians held in contempt, it would seem that people are increasingly bored with current affairs. But rather than obsessing with re-engaging the viewer, maybe producers should try re-engaging with the political world around them.

Panorama programmes of the past covered the H-bomb, the Suez crisis, the Hungarian revolution, Nasser and Ben Gurion, and the ‘colour bar’ at British Rail. Reporters spent days in trenches and jungles, not as a bleeding heart exercise, but to explain complicated events in a meaningful way.

Events of yesteryear were embedded within a political context that most of us could understand, making their analysis immediately relevant. The bland flavour of politics today means that events occur in ideological vacuum, and it is less easy to make sense of them.

The challenge to the current affairs media today is surely to find new angles on contemporary issues and to confront our disillusionment. Events should be examined in different ways, now that the ideologies of left and right are gone. Meanwhile, Lindley’s work serves as a reminder that there was once a great tradition of public inquiry and debate that challenged and stimulated the audience.

Panorama – Fifty Years of Pride and Paranoia, by Richard Lindley, is published by Politico’s Publishing at £18.99 (buy this from Politicos).

Read on:

Panorama – a sinking flagship?, by Richard Lindley

spiked-issue: TV

(1) Panorama: Fifty Years of Pride and Paranoia, Richard Lindley, Politicos publishing, 2002, p138

(2) Jowell warns BBC over dumbing down, Guardian, 4 February 2002

(3) Duncan Smith lambasts BBC’s political proposals, Guardian, 16 July 2002

(4) Panorama: Fifty Years of Pride and Paranoia, Richard Lindley, Politicos publishing, 2002, p38

(5) Panorama: Fifty Years of Pride and Paranoia, Richard Lindley, Politicos publishing, 2002, p363

(6) Panorama: Fifty Years of Pride and Paranoia, Richard Lindley, Politicos publishing, 2002, p363

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