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.”’

The first edition was a disaster. To make the programme as wide-ranging and accessible as possible – which would become a perennial concern, and a source of tension – a magazine format was initially chosen, with several short items per show. During the opening night’s most serious story, about the alleged brainwashing of British spies and soldiers captured by Communist countries, a taped ‘confession’ from the trial of a supposed British agent in Hungary was played backwards, sounding, according to Bardens, like ‘Donald Duck squeaks’. Meanwhile, a less promising segment on a British millionaire who imported fish from Iceland was scuppered by the last-minute absence of a studio interview; a large dead cod on ice, drying under the TV lights, had to stand in as the main visual material. Finally, during the closing item, an attempt at a television essay on the theme of November, the presenter lost his place in the script and read out lyrical sentences about city fogs over footage of farmers ploughing for winter, and vice versa. The whole programme was broadcast live. The BBC cancelled the next edition. But not the show: in 1953, with only one TV channel available, nearly half the entire adult viewing public had watched the first Panorama. According to the BBC’s audience research, they were disappointed but intrigued by the new notion – new for Britain at least; America already had investigative shows such as Ed Murrow’s See It Now – of an authoritative, regular current affairs programme that probed deeper and ranged wider than the news.

Over the rest of the decade, the early, stuttering Panorama gradually evolved into exactly that. The production staff and facilities were moved from Alexandra Palace to their own premises in a converted Victorian house in Lime Grove in West London. The show’s trademarks of on-the-spot reporting, clearly explained stories and interest in foreign subjects were established. And, just as important, the programme began to create a particular kind of journalist. Panorama’s presenters and reporters, however famous they became, tended to be freelance. They worked on short-term contracts, which were effectively awarded by the programme’s producers (who were on the BBC staff). In return, the on-camera journalists were better paid, allowed to broadcast their opinions – against the BBC’s usual conventions of ‘impartial’ news reporting – and treated like stars.

Woodrow Wyatt was the first. When he was hired in 1955, he had already been a successful print journalist and a Labour junior minister, and had an opinion of himself to match. To look at, he was well-fed rather than youthful and dashing, but the architects of Panorama felt that a man of the world would give their programme authority. Wyatt was awarded a one-year contract for the then substantial salary of £2800, with ‘first-class travel throughout’. Within months, it was being remarked in newspapers that Wyatt’s melodramatic but pioneering location reports (‘To my right, are Africa and Egypt . . . Behind me is Gibraltar’) were making him more influential than he had been as a politician. In May 1956, rather startlingly, Wyatt decided to test this proposition. Reporting on elections at the Amalgamated Engineering Union, in which he expected the Communist Party to make gains, he delivered a speech rather than a summary to AEU members and his other viewers: ‘Do you really want your union to be run by the Communists? . . . If that should happen, then the AEU will be the largest and most important union in the whole of the free world to come under Communist control.’ Wyatt later claimed that his oratory increased the election’s turnout by 40 per cent, ensuring the defeat of the Communists. Given that he also claimed in his entry in Who’s Who to have co-created Panorama, this is perhaps to be treated with scepticism. In 1958, he left the programme to return to politics. Yet a sense that its reporters were not ordinary journalists, but people of influence and free-ranging adventurers, remained, and steadily solidified over the next two decades.

It is the source here of many cartoonish stories. Lindley’s account of how he and his colleagues, including the producer Anthony Summers, covered the Yom Kippur War is typical:

Once in Tripoli Summers cut a comprehensive deal with a likely looking taxi driver which soon had the Lime Grove contingent speeding day and night across the desert, talking and bribing its way through roadblocks over the border into Egypt. Arriving at the Nile Hilton, Summers imperiously demanded the biggest available suite, spread money liberally around the hotel lobby and telephone exchange, and immediately had notepaper printed which read ‘BBC Cairo Office’ . . . Accompanied by an Egyptian general, the team drove on as if heading for Jerusalem. Only a shot from a stationary tank on the horizon brought their advance to a halt. Unwittingly Panorama had left the Egyptian forces behind and reached the Israeli front line.

Panorama could be very macho. Staff had fist-fights, and wrote works of self-dramatising trenchcoat journalism as a sideline. Lindley praises an old colleague for ‘caring for his men under fire’. Yet he acknowledges that Lime Grove, with all the egos caged in its cramped offices, waiting for the next race to an international crisis zone or coming down from the last one, could be a near impossible place to work. Sally Doganis, one of Panorama’s first female producers, found the atmosphere ‘really very odd’ when she arrived in 1982: ‘Everyone outside the two people actually working on a programme was an enemy . . . It was like schoolchildren writing with their arms over their work to stop other people seeing what they were doing.’ The journalism that resulted was often groundbreaking: for all their showing off, Summers and Lindley did beat the rest of the BBC into Egyptian-held territory in 1973. It could be brave and revelatory: a report from Vietnam in 1966 so enraged the American press with its footage of civilian casualties and unhappy American conscripts that the Washington Post implied its reporter should be censored. Or it could be as racy as a good thriller: an award-winning edition in 1978 investigated a mysterious company called Otrag, which had links to former Nazi missile scientists and had acquired part of Zaire in order to build a commercial space rocket and launch spy satellites for developing countries.

This colour supplement style of reporting had its flaws, however. Some of Panorama’s well-connected, confident males tended to seek out their own kind when reporting, and to speak to generals and heads of state to the exclusion of their subjects, and victims. After the coup in Chile in 1973, a Listener reviewer commented, Panorama questioned the victors ‘with its usual polite aloofness’ while other programmes spoke to the defeated. Another weakness, during the 1970s in particular, was a tendency to pursue dramatic foreign stories for their own sake. Bruce Chatwin’s journalism for the Sunday Times magazine during the same period, equally celebrated then and since, had a similar exotic-but-aimless quality, with stories seemingly sought out for little more than their strangeness and their locations. When Chatwin collected these articles in a book, he called it What Am I Doing Here. The phrase ‘Terminal 3-itis’ was coined by one of Panorama’s producers to describe his colleagues’ perpetual need to fly to California and film stories of questionable relevance to British viewers.

The programme was generally less intrigued by Britain itself. During the 1970s it was left to LWT’s Weekend World to try to explain the bewildering and pivotal economic and political crises that Britain was suddenly experiencing. Weekend World is dismissed here as ‘deadly dull’: a programme to fulfil contractual obligations and keep the regulators of independent television happy, with tiny ratings and too much studio footage. There is some truth in this. But Lindley doesn’t see that Weekend World’s wordy, at times painfully earnest examinations of the end of postwar social democracy and the beginnings of Thatcherism systematically grasped a big underlying story in which Panorama showed only sporadic interest. Just as important for Panorama’s future prospects, Lindley and his colleagues also appeared not to notice, at least to judge by this account, that Weekend World was creating its own network of clever, ambitious men. Peter Jay, Peter Mandelson, Christopher Hitchens, Brian Walden and their slightly geeky colleagues turned out to be a more influential and politically adept group than Panorama’s fist-fighting war reporters. And none was more geeky and influential than Weekend World’s creator and guiding spirit: Panorama’s nemesis, John Birt.

Birt’s autobiography is much closer than Lindley’s book to a humourless media blockbuster. It has the heft and corporate cover photos. It has a chapter called ‘The Digital Journey’. But its gauche and overemphatic showing off, together with its occasional, ostentatious bouts of modesty, make it a more revealing and interesting work than might be expected. The teenage Birt, we learn for example, spent his last spring before going to St Catherine’s College, Oxford trying to become a bohemian in Barcelona: ‘In the bars of the Plaza Real, near the port, I met sailors and world-weary travellers . . . Andalucians tried, in vain, to teach me to dance the flamenco and to play the castanets. I did succeed in learning to drink from a porrón, squirting the wine in a long arc into my mouth from high above my head.’

Birt’s early television career in the 1960s had its frothy side. He helped create a variety show, Nice Time, co-hosted by Kenny Everett. He worked on programmes involving cartoons and, more famously, Mick Jagger. He spent his salary on clothes from Granny Takes a Trip, the prosperous London hippie’s retailer of choice on the King’s Road. ‘I wanted to move to drama,’ Birt writes, ‘and had only a modest interest in current affairs.’ Yet during the early 1970s, he sobered. His ambition and the promptings of more powerful TV executives led him to become the editor of World in Action and then the producer for David Frost, both current affairs institutions. Still in his mid-twenties, Birt breathed tear gas while filming demonstrations, had a gun pointed at him in Bangladesh, and set up interviews in South Wales with implacable striking miners – by 1972 he felt he was experiencing ‘the dread beginnings’ of a new era, and that it should be covered in an appropriately austere manner. He started Weekend World that autumn. It was the programme, he writes, ‘that would have by far the greatest impact on my life . . . my pivotal, formative, growing-up experience in the worlds of television and politics’. Its methods were almost the exact opposite of Panorama’s:

The programme-making process started with a long period of research, talking to everyone involved with an issue. An outline script was then written before experts were interviewed and sequences filmed to illuminate particular points. Directors and reporters were sent off with a clear specification of the story their film should tell . . . This process brought a leap in coherence, but – initially at least – a decline in the team’s morale. The directors and reporters had lost the freedom of the road.

Over the next decade and a half, Weekend World’s working methods, and Birt’s ideas about how to make current affairs programmes in general, grew steadily more rigid. Then, in 1987, the BBC asked him to become Deputy Director-General. Birt thought he knew precisely why: ‘News and current affairs were a big problem . . . The whole area needed sorting out.’ A long, heartfelt section here makes his disapproval of what Panorama in particular had become very clear. Lime Grove, he writes, was ‘British broadcasting’s Gormenghast . . . unsuitable for modern programme-making . . . a festering rabbit-warren sheltering hidden cliques’. In the Panorama offices, ‘larger-than-life reporters . . . had effectively seized power.’ The programme itself ‘lacked rigour’, ‘was not addressing the key stories of the time’ and was ‘often unfair’. The Panorama staff were alert enough, at least, to see what was coming. ‘The dark suits that Birt and his lieutenants favoured,’ Lindley writes, reaching for a vivid but tasteless simile, ‘looked rather like the black pyjama outfits that Pol Pot’s Cambodian guerrillas wore as they came padding quietly down the road in their disciplined way.’ What followed at Panorama was Birt’s BBC revolution in miniature. Long-serving staff, including Lindley, were abruptly sacked. Management edicts rained down. Birt-style editorial processes were introduced, and his loyalists were hired, including former subordinates from Weekend World. After a great deal of friction, he appeared to have won: ‘It was a happy day for me, a few years later, when Lime Grove was bulldozed to the ground.’

As with the BBC in general, Birt proved better at terminating the old Panorama than at creating a successor. For all his ideas about seriousness and explaining the state of the nation, the best-known and most watched edition of the programme of his – or any – era was Martin Bashir’s interview with Princess Diana in 1995, a one-off scoop that owed little to his conception of current affairs, or to Panorama’s pre-Birt traditions. And when the programme did attempt a thorough analysis of how Britain functioned in the late 1980s and early 1990s, by looking at the recklessness of the arms trade, the fragility of the economy, or gerrymandering by the Conservative council in Westminster, Birt’s support was less than absolute during the controversies that followed. ‘Neither then nor on any other occasion during my time at the BBC did I make – or was even asked to make – a programme decision for a political or institutional reason,’ Birt insists here. Yet the clearest diagnoses of the decay of Conservative Britain came from other media sources than Panorama.

Nowadays, the programme’s style and status reflect the pragmatic BBC of Birt’s successor as Director-General, Greg Dyke. Some editions are bold and authoritative; others are so concerned to be accessible and relevant to viewers that they are like televised focus groups. Panorama’s place in the schedules is similarly ambiguous – prominently trailed during news bulletins, but pushed ever further back into the yawning fringes of Sunday evening. Last December, for example, a flimsy drama about the career of Jeffrey Archer meant that that week’s Panorama, a stern and thorough examination of the recent suspicious deaths of soldiers at Deepcut barracks in Surrey, ended uncomfortably close to midnight. Satire rather than investigative journalism, the message seemed to be, was now the BBC’s preferred way of making popular current affairs programmes.

Predicting the demise of Panorama is, however, a risky business. People have been doing so at least since the Sunday Times’s dismissal of the programme in 1955. Ratings have always been erratic, and closely related to the subject matter of each edition: as low as two million viewers for a profile of Golda Meir in 1969, as high as 22.8 million for the Diana interview. Judging the actual quality of the programme over a significant period is like making the same assessment of a magazine or a newspaper – usually dependent on the subjective interpretation of a few fragments, personal prejudice and word of mouth. It’s as easy to imagine Panorama falling finally from favour and disappearing – perhaps once the 50th anniversary of its first broadcast is out of the way this November – as it is to imagine its theme music rumbling on portentously for decades to come. At the very least, it has been a useful vehicle for Paxman, Birt, Lindley and the rest. Journalists tend to be as keen to move on from their more durable institutions as they are to celebrate them. And without his battles with Panorama and the rest of the BBC, Birt probably would not have been able to give us this glimpse of the magic circle of international media executives, as it gathered at Bill Gates’s mansion near Seattle in 1997:

I found myself in a large room with a wall-to-wall black floor, which turned out to be a rubber trampoline. Rupert Murdoch’s young, spiky-haired, tattooed son Lachlan . . . entered with me. He and I bounced up and down together on the trampoline, something I had not done since childhood. Doing a forward somersault again for the first time in forty years, I felt like a naughty schoolboy.

Apparently even alumni of Weekend World need to let their hair down from time to time.