Magazine article The Spectator

A Window on the World

Magazine article The Spectator

A Window on the World

Article excerpt

PANORAMA: FIFTY YEARS OF PRIDE AND PARANOIA by Richard Lindley Politico's L18.99, pp. 383, ISBN 1902301803

It is two years since Panorama was shunted out of peak time on BBCI into exile late on Sunday night. There were one or two protests, but the BBC reassured its critics that 'we will strengthen the News'. Two years on, the Six o'Clock News has the agenda of a second-rate tabloid newspaper and the Ten o'Clock News is about to be decimated by the departure of its heavyweights, Michael Burck and Peter Sissons. Allegedly `too old' (i.e. wise and worldly), they will be replaced by a presenter who calls in a figure called Fergus to explain the significance of the news.

The current BBC regime ignores such a lowering of standards. Ratings are paramount, marketing is what matters and the words `public service broadcasting' have lost any significance. The last Panorama to be broadcast in peak time was John Ware's masterly report on Who Bombed Omagh? It was a programme of quality and bravery and it won a clutch of awards. The reward for this journalistic excellence was banishment to the Siberia of the weekend schedule.

In this lively book, full of insights, Richard Lindley, a former reporter on the programme, sets out the history of Panorama from its beginning as a twee magazine through its glory days on Monday evenings to its confrontation with John Birt. Birt arrived at the BBC to bring together the warring empires of News and Current Affairs. It needed an outsider to bring this about and it was always going to be bloody, but the brutal way Birt went about it left many scars. A less stubborn man than Birt could have persuaded the Panorama people that not everything was well. Lindley spells out some of the disasters: the Maggie's Militant Tendency programme, which humiliated the BBC in the courts, the night the programme failed to get on the air at all and a belief that 'Panorama was right and everyone else was wrong - even the BBC bosses'.

Three events had combined to make Panorama required viewing in British households: the Suez crisis and the Hungarian uprising in the autumn of 1956, the failure of BBC News to cope adequately with these events and the inspired choice of Richard Dimbleby to introduce and link the programme. In his ten years with Panorama, Dimbleby made it, as Lindley says, 'both popular and important'. I remember one evening during the Cuban missile crisis, when war seemed imminent, a viewer's phone call: 'I want Richard Dimbleby to tell me tonight whether it's safe for my daughter to go to school tomorrow. …

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