A sorry state of current affairs

Is `Panorama', the programme that gave us unmissable investigative TV reporting, on a terminal decline? Paul McCann examines the evidence
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Panorama, the world's longest-running current affairs programme, is 45 years old, and some think it has hit a mid-life crisis. The recent exodus of senior staff has been blamed on a time slot at the edge of the schedule, budget cuts and the dismemberment of the BBC's weekly current affairs department.

Last week it was reported that the editor, Peter Horrocks, who has been there only three months, may be leaving soon to head up all of the BBC's current affairs output. All of which leaves the remaining staff on the programme feeling, at best, unloved.

Once it was all so different. Panorama and World in Action were what people meant by "documentaries" - not Maureen and her driving school. Their programmes on the Birmingham Six, British Airways' dirty tricks and the Diana interview were evidence of the quality of British TV's investigative journalism.

Now Panorama looks increasingly like something the BBC thinks is a creature from a previous age, and World in Action is waiting to see whether ITV's planned new magazine current affairs show will replace it, or chop it up and swallow it.

The changes at the BBC's current affairs department leave Panorama looking rather lonely. The Money Programme joined business programmes last year. Question Time is to become part of Westminster political programmes; Here and Now, though still under current affairs, has moved to Manchester.

Instead of regular weekly strands, the BBC is investing in special one- off programmes or three and four episodes on a specific topic, such as The Force and Compass.

"The current affairs base is not what it was a few years ago," says one Panorama producer who is on the verge of leaving. "There are specials and series on the police rather than a regular slot, so current affairs becomes a kind of commissioning editor with no brand identity."

However, Mark Damazer, outgoing head of current affairs, denies that there is a problem: "The world has got more complicated. You need a few powerful strands like Panorama and Correspondent, then you have to think about what you do with the rest of your money. We now use it to do series on big topics and smaller intellectual experiments."

Like all the BBC News directorate, Panorama has suffered from budget cuts for the past three years, losing 15 per cent of its budget. Especially gruelling for staff has been a cut in filming schedules from 14 days to 11 days.

There has also been some dissent about the move to 10pm last year, to make way for "soap docs" and comedy shows.

One producer believes that the move has been largely irrelevant - that ratings currently fluctuate between 3 and 5 million, showing that the topicality of the programme dictates ratings more than time slot. Others are not so sure: "We were told we'd pick up all the traffic moving across the channels before News at Ten. In fact we don't start until four minutes past, by which time plenty of people have settled down to Trevor McDonald."

Whatever the reasons, the programme has lost or is losing experienced people such as the producers Nick London, Andrew Williams, Eamonn Matthews and Mark Dowd. And the next generation of producers, such as Rachel Crellin, have also started to leave.

Some within the BBC have bitchily attributed these moves to Peter Horrocks's style. The former Newsnight editor has a reputation for being a cold fish. There has been a minor fuss on the programme about his insistence on reintroducing cut-away shots of the interviewing reporter - which some think makes the show look dated and slow.

There is also muttering that Horrocks is taking the programme back to the heavy, analytical style inherited by his predecessor, Steve Hewlett. Generally, instead of investigations, the show then just took the big story of the week and did it in detail.

Others say that many of the departures were planned or happened before his arrival, and might equally be blamed on the more ebullient Hewlett. "Much as we loved him Steve wasn't the best man-manager in the world," says an insider. "You tended to find that if you could turn a story around quickly, you were rewarded with another one to turn around quickly. There ended up being two tiers of staff, with some slogging all the time and others given months to research and make a film."

Given the budget cuts, the hard slog, the fall in audience and a change in editor, it is hardly surprising that staff on the programme started looking at their career options.

Much of the exodus from the programme has been in the direction of what's seen as the relatively cushy world of documentaries, either within the BBC or with independents.

"Docs are better funded," says one Panorama producer. "The average producer makes five or six films in a year here. They take 12 months to make a Modern Times. And what we do is a very hard form of journalism, because it's not news, but it's not pure documentary either. In pure documentary you create the narrative, but it doesn't need to have any meaning in the wider world. I'm mean, how representative is the Adelphi Hotel? What we do in current affairs needs to say something, be typical - and have a narrative thread. "

Horrocks is sanguine about the departures: "The proof is in the pudding. The programme has a healthy 25 per cent share and averages around 4.4 million viewers. It continues to do good investigations. What do the audience care who the producers are? We have established and experienced reporters who give authority and character to the programme."

Both he and Damazer contend that there is a traditional route from daily news, to current affairs, to documentaries, as producers and reporters spread their wings. All we are seeing now, they say, is another cycle of staff.

Nor should it be thought that Panorama is the only home of worried staff in the world of TV current affairs.

ITV has tenders out for a new weekly hour-long current affairs magazine show. The commercial network's director of programmes, David Liddiment, is known to feel that, as the man likely to move News at Ten, he doesn't also want to go down as the man that killed World in Action.

Yet rumour is that the new show may incorporate WiA into it, or marginalise it. Its respected editor, Steve Boulton, left last month, and the new editor, Chris Anderson, has promised to widen the show's appeal.

At Channel 4 there have also been changes, and Dispatches' new editor, Dorothy Byrne, comes from the lighter current affairs world of Carlton's now defunct The Big Story. A recent Dispatches about women who are mums at 60 already worries some of the show's harder-nosed investigative types.

Commercial TV's executives now utter the mantra of "relevance" when discussing current affairs. They want their programmes to be in touch with viewers' lives. In fact, those who hold the flame for serious current affairs claim that executives tend to want to touch the lives of the youngish and wealthy- ish who appeal to advertisers. They are less bothered, it is said, about current affairs' relevance to the lives of old age pensioners and political refugees.

Horrocks says WiA and Dispatches producers are now clamouring to join Panorama: "The move to more popular styles of documentary-making isn't a threat to Panorama. It makes it more distinctive and important. Which is why I've got more than enough current affairs producers calling me to get on to Panorama."

In the context of competitive pressures Panorama's journalists remain blessed. They are there to do the refugees and OAPs without pressure from advertisers. In other parts of BBC News, some say that Panorama staff have always been prima donnas who don't like change and even some insiders say the exodus is more a matter of coincidence than of a siege mentality.

And there is always the heritage - Sir Richard Dimbleby, and all that has gone before, to protect the programme. "It's the oldest current affairs programme in the world, and there is something God-like about the name," says one Panorama producer. "If they ever tried to cut it to 30 minutes or put it on BBC 2 it would be such an admission of defeat ... it's never going to happen."

And many in the current affairs world wish they had that kind of stability.