When George Entwistle was a producer on the BBC's On the Record, his colleagues had a nickname for him: General Sir George Entwistle. He was so called, says a colleague, because he had just finished making a series of military-based documentaries, and had developed "an obsession with tanks and guns and stuff".
You wouldn't believe this reputation to look at the BBC's amiable, bespectacled head of television current affairs. He appears more professor than guerrista. But inspect his CV closer, and one sees a journalist for whom loyalty and tenacity are significant qualities. Having graduated from Durham University with a 2:1 in philosophy and politics, Entwistle had a brief foray in print journalism with Haymarket Press, before signing up for a long, monogamous relationship with the Corporation.
Indeed, having joined the BBC as a broadcast journalist trainee in 1989, Entwistle has been an assistant producer on Panorama; the producer of On the Record; the producer, assistant editor, deputy editor and editor on Newsnight; executive editor in topical arts; launch editor of The Culture Show; and, finally, head of television current affairs.
Now Entwistle, who is 44, faces his biggest challenge yet. He has to make a re-jigged, half-hour version of BBC's flagship current affairs programme, Panorama, work on a Monday at 8.30pm - starting tonight. And he has to make it work going head-to-head with Channel 4's impressive Dispatches, which airs at 8pm. Of course, as the chief of TV current affairs, Entwistle is responsible not just for Panorama, but for all the Corporation's long-form current affairs output. But he has gambled heavily on his flagship programme, and it will be its Monday night success or failure upon which his performance is judged.
"One of the first things I decided when I got this job [in November 2005] was that Panorama is the big name," Entwistle says. "So what we needed to do was to give it more money, and give it more episodes." Does that mean there's less money, now, to make other one-off documentaries? "There's a bit, but not as much ... My feeling is that if we're going to do big TV journalism on BBC1, we should do it under the Panorama brand."
The BBC's landmark current affairs programme has always been a problem for directors general. Greg Dyke might have killed Panorama when he stuck it in a graveyard Sunday spot. Mark Thompson, it seems, has been more merciful. But there is no doubt: this is the last-chance saloon for the programme. Indeed, Panorama's new presenter, Jeremy Vine, has said of the new format that "we need to establish that it can prosper in prime time on a weekday ... We're running out of options if this doesn't work. But I'm full of hope."
Before we discuss the new strategy, though, Entwistle is keen to point to the programme's successes in 2006. "In the one-hour Panorama specials, we've really had an amazing year. I was very pleased with the football investigation, the bail hostel investigation, and the fake passport programme... We had more audiences of four million or over in 2006 than we did the year before."
But wasn't the football bungs investigation something of a lead balloon? Stephen Glover, in this newspaper, memorably remarked that "the Second Coming could hardly have been given greater billing by the BBC than its documentary about football 'bungs'", but that the programme had, in fact, "discovered very little indeed ... after one year, and God knows how much expenditure".
"The interesting thing about that film," counters Entwistle "was that there was such an appetite for it in the papers... The level of interest prior to transmission and after transmission was entirely consistent with the bravery of what we tried to do. I'm comfortable we did a good job."
Whether the Panorama team will be able to do a good job in only half an hour, though, is a moot point. "Length is always an issue," says Entwistle. "There are producers who would rather make 40-minute films than 30-minute films. I think they are wrong. Thirty minutes is a fantastic duration with an amazing history. World in Action, This Week - these were half-hour shows and nobody ever complained about their duration. They did amazing things in half an hour, and, moreover ... with advert breaks. A BBC half hour is longer than an independent-sector half hour."
The new format, he says, will also allow the programme to be much more flexible. So, while most of the films will be commissioned and filmed in advance, there is scope to do very fast turnaround pieces, as the news agenda demands.
So what subjects have been earmarked for the Panorama treatment already? "We've got loads of stuff in development, and some of it I can't talk to you about for obvious reasons," he says. What he can reveal is that the first episode - of the scheduled 48 a year - is about IVF treatment, and that there will also be programmes about the Litvinenko assassination, carers for the elderly and have-a-go heroes.
Is there enough foreign material on the slate? One of the grumbles expressed when the new format was announced was that the programme would now not have enough time to deal with big, overseas stories.
Entwistle counters this argument by saying that "if a subject genuinely demands an hour, then of course we will do that. We would never have done the football [Panorama] in half an hour." But he admits: "In 2006, we didn't do enough foreign stories. Now we have 48 shows in the year - that's a lot of slots to cover all the big important things we want to cover. I'd like to think that if we'd been in our new format last year during the Lebanese war, we would have done a very fast turnaround piece."
If Entwistle has committed most of his battalions to Panorama, he has also shown admirable faith in a new programme, The One Show, a nightly magazine programme hosted by Adrian Chiles and Julia Sawahla. The One Show, which will feature a 10-minute domestic current affairs segment and then audience feedback and discussion, impressed the mandarins when its mini-series piloted in October. "The idea ... is to engage the audience, and follow up on their reactions to our stories," says Entwistle. "We will also send journalists to follow up on the audience reaction. What came out of the pilot was that viewers really responded to the programme."
After The One Show and Panorama, though, the money starts to run out. So, Entwistle needs the viewing figures to roll in. You would not bet against him, and his record at the BBC is exemplary. Entwistle was, for instance, the editor of Newsnight during the maelstrom that was the Andrew Gilligan affair. Not only did the programme unflinchingly report the practices of its parent organisation, something that made its then editor "incredibly proud", but it won a string of awards, including the Royal Television Society's for "Best News programme". Entwistle, like any good general, relishes adversity. As Panorama begins another life - perhaps its last - his mettle may be required again.Reuse content