Media: You Cannot Be Serious! (Well, Not on TV) ; Cutting Back on Panorama Is Yet Another Example of Television Putting Gimmicks before Worthwhile Journalism, Says David Aaronovitch

Article excerpt

It's 12 August for grouse, and it's the second week of May for the BBC. The open season has begun, and the sharp reports of "Beeb In Storm Over X" gunfire can be heard throughout the written media. Bloodied feathers are falling from the sky. The Telegraph is incensed that the 100th birthday celebrations for the Queen Mother are restricted to almost one full day on the BBC, and urges the corporation to devote most of the year to the monarch's mum's centenary.

Meanwhile the Daily Mail laments that Andrew Marr, one of the most talented and insightful political journalists of the last 30 years, has been given the job of BBC political editor, on the grounds that he is a Blairite. The real scandal, of course, is that Marr was not employed back in 1992 when the great John Cole retired.

So Marr's appointment is, for me, the most encouraging development since Greg Dyke became BBC director general just over three months ago. It is a statement that the BBC wishes to sharpen its political analysis, and move further away from political gossip and the "Hague said `boo', Blair replied, `yar'" school of lobby reportage.

Unfortunately last week, just before the Marr and Queen Mum stories broke, there was also what medical people might have called a major "contraindication". The controller of BBC1, Peter Salmon, arrived at a meeting of the Panorama team to talk to them about the programme's future. They knew what he was about to say because The Svelte Controller had been preceded by uncannily accurate reports in two broadsheet newspapers. The bad news was that the number of editions made every year would be cut from 38 to 30; the good news was that the overall money would be the same, increasing each programme's budget by about 25 per cent.

You could decide, as Peter Salmon and Peter Horrocks (Panorama's editor) have urged you, to be very unexcited about this. Panorama has run at 30 editions before, even in the glorious past. And the extra resource per show could come in handy, concentrating more effort into fewer programmes. What's the problem?

Well, the context for one thing. When I was at the BBC, and partly responsible for Panorama, I became uncomfortably aware of just how much successive controllers of BBC1 did not want it. Periodically, especially when other elements of their schedule were under pressure (notably when their drama and sitcoms were crap), unsourced stories would appear relating the concern of "senior executives" that Panorama had lost its way, was no longer pulling the viewers, winning awards, or making a splash. The last month or so has seen a rash of such stories. Followed by the cut in the run.

Over the years this attrition has had an effect. TV journalism has always been difficult. To shoot an effective documentary you have to find a good human story, and then coax it, shoot it and edit it as well as you can. To make a decent Panorama, all that still applies, but the story first has to be generalisable, it must represent something other than itself. And the thing it represents must be important.

But if that extra effort, in which many stories fall down or fail to make quite such "sexy" television, is unappreciated by the bosses, then why would the best producers persist? Why not go off and make an award- contending doc about a tragic tot, rather than four awkward Panoramas, which you know the great powers will not appreciate?

There are periods of remission, of course. The 1995 Diana interview gave Panorama a temporary cachet.But for ten years the overall tale has been one of smaller budgets, less kudos, and continual sniping. Why? Last weekend the former Panorama reporter and distinguished author, Tom Bower, placed the blame on Birtism. The programme has become unpopular, he said, because it had forgotten that its role was "telling a story rather than pontificating about the issues".

But Bower's analysis was a throwback to an ancient and irrelevant debate, in which Birtists and anti-Birtists ripped the guts out of each other over stories versus analysis, only to find that the channel controllers weren't too keen on either. …