Cod on Ice

Andy Beckett

  • Panorama: Fifty Years of Pride And Paranoia by Richard Lindley
    Politico’s, 404 pp, £18.99, September 2002, ISBN 1 902301 80 3
  • The Harder Path: The Autobiography by John Birt
    Time Warner, 532 pp, £20.00, October 2002, ISBN 0 316 86019 0

For those inclined to ponder the state of the BBC, and of British television in general, the performance of Panorama has long been a favoured indicator. In January 1955, not much more than a year after the current affairs programme began broadcasting, the Sunday Times declared: ‘Panorama is a perfect illustration of what is wrong with television.’ Yet within five years, the Daily Mail was praising the programme for establishing investigative television as a British broadcasting genre:

Panorama has become an unbreakable Monday night fixture for between six and eight million people … The current muster has Robin Day, tenacious as a badger; Ludovic Kennedy, whose line is artistic, faintly raffish melancholy; James Mossman, the ardent Galahad who will never take for granted that men are sometimes wicked on purpose; Robert Kee, the hot-eyed public prosecutor …

When John Birt arrived at the BBC as Deputy Director-General at the end of the 1980s, apocalyptic assessments of the programme were back in fashion. According to Birt, the BBC’s Chairman, Marmaduke Hussey, regarded Panorama as a microcosm of a BBC that was ‘out of control’, that had ‘poor processes for handling legally sensitive programmes’ and ‘no one who told its journalists that they were not doing well’. Birt agreed, with consequences for the BBC as a whole.

But it is also clear from Richard Lindley’s long, densely researched history of Panorama that the programme’s perceived importance over the past fifty years has been generated as much by its own staff, with their professional egos and particular working practices, as by outside observers. For an edition in 1960 called ‘Panorama Goes to a Convention’, Ludovic Kennedy attended a press conference at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. ‘As one Kennedy to another,’ his questions to the Party’s Presidential candidate began. Lindley himself, who was a Panorama presenter and reporter during the 1970s and 1980s, writes: ‘You can’t turn down an offer of the presenter’s job on Panorama. It’s one of those things – like editing the programme – that anyone who does it is bound to remember as a career high point.’ Without any discernible irony, the final chapter here is entitled: ‘Whither Panorama?’

Lindley’s book, intentionally and otherwise, is more fun than you might expect. It has more human detail and better anecdotes than most books of its kind. And, rather than the macho tone usually adopted by studies of media institutions and mergers and tycoons, it has a seam of self-deprecation running through it, which reminds you intermittently that Panorama has been an enterprise with important strengths and weaknesses, and that these have something to tell us about the broader journalistic culture and society that produced it. In a brief but unguarded foreword by Jeremy Paxman, who was a reporter on the programme in the early 1980s (part of the pleasure of the book is coming across current media grandees in the adolescent phase of their careers), this self-deprecation verges on the self-destructive. ‘Just about anyone who has ever worked on Panorama has called it by its nickname, “Paranoia”,’ Paxman begins. ‘At times in its history you would have had to be very unlucky indeed to find a more poisonous place to work.’ In its output, the programme ‘has ranged from the whimsical to the hysterical’. In status, he continues, it has declined steeply in recent years, ‘no longer a weekly feature in the schedules and exiled from prime time to late Sunday nights’. As for its future, he concludes: ‘the signals are not good.’

Television was a more forgiving environment when Panorama started. Dennis Bardens, the programme’s creator, was a Fleet Street feature writer turned freelance radio producer, who in the early 1950s was overseeing a weekly factual series for the BBC Light Programme. It occurred to him to try to transfer the populist documentary style to the new medium. In 1952 he made contact with another producer looking for a TV project, Andrew Miller Jones. Miller Jones was an ex-Army officer with a yellow Rolls-Royce, the first of a large number of Panorama staff over the next fifty years with either a military background or an ostentatious personal style, or both. Together, Miller Jones and Bardens came up with the idea of a programme based on ‘topicality’ presented by someone who was ‘genial and acceptable’ and had ‘a lively and enquiring mind’. The hardest part seemed to be the name: they came up with nearly a hundred, including such clunkers as ‘One Pace Back’ and ‘Filed for Reference’, before one day Bardens looked out of his fifth-floor office window in Alexandra Palace, on its hill above the North London suburbs, and saw the capital winking and humming to the south. ‘I suddenly thought, “Bugger it,”’ he remembers here, ‘“Panorama, that’s the title.”’

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