Since John Birt arrived at Broadcasting House in 1987 with a mission to 'clean up' the corporation's journalism, the BBC's news and current affairs directorate, created by Mr Birt, has shunned popular journalism. Royal stories were dropped from news bulletins while specialist reporters and programmes briefed to examine foreign, social and financial affairs appeared on our screens.
But lately the BBC has begun to realise that its current affairs programmes such as Assignment, the Money Programme and Public Eye are being ignored by viewers lower down the social scale - the so-called C2s, Ds and Es - and that overall the BBC is 'super-serving' older, upmarket metropolitan audiences. This is a potentially dangerous situation for the BBC because it is funded by a licence fee paid by all viewers regardless of age, class and where they live.
Now the BBC is attempting to fill the gap by creating a programme that deliberately sets out to excite the interest of the mass audience. The approach that created television classics such as Tonight (which ran from 1957 to 1965) and Nationwide (1969-1983) is back on the editorial agenda.
Here and Now will be screened by BBC 1 on 2 March. Already, insiders have dubbed it 'son of Nationwide'. 'It's no secret that in recent years the BBC has sought the higher ground in news and current affairs,' says Steve Anderson, the series producer.
'All audience research shows that people regard our news coverage as the most authoritative and turn to it at times of national crisis. But there is concern because to a lot of viewers that sort of journalism can appear remote. This is an attempt to show that we can still turn out popular journalism.'
The architect of Nationwide was Derrick Amoore, a former Tonight producer. He graduated from Cambridge, but his approach to programme making was never elitist. 'Derrick believed that Nationwide should engage and unite the whole nation at teatime,' recalls Michael Bunce, a former Nationwide editor. 'There was something for everyone in every part of Britain, the young and the old, the educated and the less well educated. It was a genuine mix.' During its heyday in the mid-Seventies, the programme regularly chalked up audiences of more than 14 million.
This mix may have helped, but it was the programme's creaky, accident- prone character and highly developed sense of the absurd that won viewers' affection. Its presenters, who included the cheery Michael Barratt, the gauche Bob Wellings and Sue Lawley, then a fresh-faced girl from the regions, always seemed to take the viewers' side; and Nationwide was never above highlighting the trivial. The famous skateboarding duck that followed a farmer's wife everywhere is part of television folklore, and who could forget the team of paraplegic darts players?
But in 1982, under its last editor, Roger Bolton, Nationwide became po- faced, installed David Dimbleby and ratings nosedived. Even then the series could still hit the headlines. Ms Lawley's famous encounter with Margaret Thatcher and the viewer Diana Gould over the sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands War probably did more to sour relations between Downing Street and the BBC in the Eighties than any other single incident.
Where does this leave Here and Now? While Mr Anderson acknowledges that this is the first time current affairs has attempted to target the mass audience since Nationwide, he says there are differences between the two. Nationwide was live; Here and Now will be pre- recorded. Studio items will be rare: normally the programme will consist of three filmed reports: a mini-investigation, a personality profile and a 'lateral' look at a big domestic story such as the impact of VAT on heating bills. Viewers can expect plenty of health stories and items with happy endings, because audiences have told the BBC's researchers this is what they want.
In the Nationwide tradition, Here and Now's reporters are an eclectic bunch. Tom Mangold, the Panorama veteran, will lead the team. He is joined by Sybil Ruscoe from Radio 1, Newsnight's Mark Easton, Sanka Guha from Janet Street-Porter's former youth empire - and Lynda Bryans, a refugee from BBC Belfast.
While classic, issue-based Birtism may be in retreat, a lot of old-style practitioners of populist BBC current affairs journalism have been weeded out. At White City, where the programme is being made, producers are asking themselves if there are enough journalists with a popular touch still working at the BBC to make Here and Now work.
Initially, Here and Now will run for six weeks. If it does not succeed, the likelihood is that it will either be quietly forgotten or given to another department - perhaps features, where populism flourishes in such programmes as Holiday and Desmond Lynam's How Do They Do That?
'This is a crucial programme for current affairs,' says a BBC veteran. 'It has the full backing of Alan Yentob and Liz Forgan (the two executives who are monitoring all BBC programmes as part of a 'strategy review'), but current affairs needs to prove that it is still capable of delivering non-elitist journalism.'
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content