Not pulling any punches

The last Panorama criticised the BBC itself. As the show returns, Ian Burrell looks at its future
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The Independent Online

"Part of our raison d'être is to be an independent source of information that people can trust. That was clearly more important than whether or not there were more red faces at the BBC afterwards than there were before."

If Mike Robinson, the editor of Panorama, has any regrets over January's special edition of Britain's most famous current affairs programme, he does not show it.

The programme, Fight to the Death, badly winged the BBC's director-general, Greg Dyke, in the week before the publication of Lord Hutton's inquiry into the Kelly affair - famously accusing him of "betting the farm" on the accuracy of Andrew Gilligan's report.

An editorial in this newspaper at the time observed, "it is difficult to imagine any other journalistic organisation broadcasting the equivalent of Wednesday night's Panorama programme which bluntly criticised the blanket refusal of Greg Dyke, the BBC's director general, and Gavyn Davies, the chairman of its governors, to admit to any mistakes in the corporation's reporting that triggered the sequence of events that led to Dr Kelly's suicide."

When Hutton published days later, his criticisms of the BBC were such that Dyke and Davies felt they had no option but to resign.

Asked if he is at all remorseful that the programme may have contributed to the demise of a much-loved DG, Robinson says simply, "I'd rather just stand by the programme. It was an important piece of journalism, and a significant test for the BBC," he says, talking about the programme for the first time since Dyke's departure.

Robinson has been at the Panorama helm for three and a half years, and he sees it as a standard-bearer for the BBC, both in terms of the "ambition" of its journalism and in the "trust" it commands from its audiences.

He is determined that, after 50 years on air, Panorama will not be deflected from its course by the backlash from Hutton. "There's the same journalistic ambition and a determination to scrutinise the use and abuse of power," he says. "The only difference is a reinforced understanding - as if we needed it - of the high expectations that audiences have of us."

The next series of Panorama, which starts on Sunday, is an important test of the BBC's journalistic resolve. Amid reports of "paralysis" inside the BBC news department in the post-Hutton era, where staff are terrified of making mistakes and senior executives are still enduring the discomfort of an internal inquiry, the whole corporation is looking to the current affairs flagship to show it can still produce the goods.

Robinson has chosen, for the first programme since Fight to the Death, to show an investigation that highlights an altogether different world to the London snake-pit of journalists and political spinners which was the setting for Panorama's last production.

"There's another part of our brief, to report parts of Britain that are at times under-reported," explains Robinson, a full-time BBC staffer for 26 years. "To report on behalf of vulnerable people."

The Invisible Kids is the story of children, with drug-addicted parents, living in Glasgow. Testimonies provided by the youngsters are told and re-enacted by child actors, in what is a unique approach for Panorama. "We have never done a whole programme in which the journalism is represented by actors," says Robinson.

The result, he says, is a "poignant and moving film, which will also challenge policy-makers", finding as it does that up to 300,000 children are in this predicament, and that there is inadequate provision for them.

Later in the series, Panorama will risk frightening its audience by using more actors to portray "plausible but fictional" terrorist attacks in central London. "We have set it in the near future, and we have used a mix of experts to inform us how London would cope," says Robinson.

The two scenarios that will be broadcast are a bomb attack on the London Underground, and a chemical tanker being driven into the centre of the city and blown up.

Panorama will return to the theme of vulnerable people with a programme on the provision of care for the elderly, which will build on an earlier investigation into Britain's six million carers, shown in the last series.

Robinson was heartened by Ofcom's recent public service broadcasting review, which highlighted the importance viewers place both on current affairs and on programmes that go for "quality rather than just box-ticking".

In the light of this, and of Panorama's unique output, you might expect Robinson to be aggrieved at its continued slot, buried away on Sunday nights. "There are no ideal slots in television," he answers diplomatically. "There's more choice and it's more competitive than it's ever been."

While he acknowledges the "time and resources" which his staff enjoy and praises his colleagues as "arguably the best current affairs team in the country" he is concerned by the demise of serious journalism. "I would like to see the pendulum swing away from some of the celebrity stuff that we see, into other aspects of British life," he says.

Although he accepts that Panorama has benefited from being able to recruit staff who may have worked on rival programmes such as World in Action, he says the current dearth of investigative shows means there are fewer producers emerging who are "capable of doing this kind of journalism". As a result of all this, "I suspect that a consequence is that people in power and wrongdoers can sleep more easily than they could years ago."