The Media Column: 'Panorama was a place from which talent would arise'

All professions have their own gods. Everyone from lawyers to Kleinian psychoanalysts will possess legendary leaders, well known to insiders – but almost entirely obscure to the rest of us. Their sayings will be repeated, their minor eccentricities recounted, and their career moves will be the subject of intense debate. They are the people too grand to appear in the gossip columns of glossy trade magazines.

All professions have their own gods. Everyone from lawyers to Kleinian psychoanalysts will possess legendary leaders, well known to insiders – but almost entirely obscure to the rest of us. Their sayings will be repeated, their minor eccentricities recounted, and their career moves will be the subject of intense debate. They are the people too grand to appear in the gossip columns of glossy trade magazines.

Such deities should, as with the ancient Egyptians, be given the head of an appropriate animal. Then they and their defining characteristic could easily be identified without the necessity of wading through acres of print.

For some reason you can only really ever understand the religion that you were born into, and despite having been a print worker for eight years now, I still don't get the hierarchy in newspapers. Television, however, where I spent my professional adolescence, I can do. So the god of incorporation would be Greg Dyke, half man, half octopus, reaching his tentacles into every corner of broadcasting creation. Next in the pantheon would be Mark Thompson, the god of movement, with his butterfly antennae and gorgeous wings.

And then comes Dawn Airey, goddess of miracles and household deity of Channel 5, holding in her three hands a clapperboard, a football and a phallus. Accompanied by cries of lamentation from her own people, whom she is about to leave; and by shouts of terror from the folk of ITV, whom she is not about to join, Dawn is now to go to Sky. It is a coup. It is a remarkable thing. The world has been reworked, and nothing will ever be the same.

In a healthy, dynamic culture, new gods would be invented whenever they were needed. Dawn's non-appearance at ITV should merely be the catalyst for the promotion of a keen young thing from within the ranks of the regional companies or, at a pinch, a high flyer lifted from the competitive frenzy of BBC middle management. But no, there is no one available. It's a disaster.

This is strange, and I'll tell you why. I have not yet read Richard Lindley's new history of Panorama, nor was I invited to the Panorama 50th anniversary party, nor indeed was my partner, who put in several years as a producer on the show. But, Bad Fairy-ing through the coverage, I did find a number of reviews.One remarked that the BBC had destroyed Panorama partly by never letting any editor stay in post for more than two years. This gave the misleading impression to the reader that editors had been shuffled off sideways or demoted in short order for exercising too much journalistic initiative.

The opposite was true. Panorama was understood by the BBC to be a place from which managerial talent would arise and be promoted. And it was also seen that way by the risers and promotees. They didn't stay long because their arcs of ascent through the firmament were too rapid. Thompson himself, Tim Gardam at Channel 4, Steve Hewlett at Carlton and the BBC factual chief Glenwyn Benson were all Panorama editors within the last 13 years. I tried to be one myself, but they wouldn't have me.

Then the schedulers (with heads of jackals) took over. Tricky film-based journalism, with its strange combination of politics, controversy, economics and overweening egos, became unfashionable. And therefore has ceased to be a provider, every 18 months or so, of yet another superbly honed, rapidly seasoned broadcasting god.

Though the qualifications and interests that you need to be an industry chief may be slightly different now, it strikes me that the qualities are much the same. And if there is truly a lack of top-class executive material in television (and all this wailing is not, rather, a sign of a lack of imagination), then the thing to do is for everyone to combine to put Panorama centre-stage again. Lots of money, a terrific place in the schedules, kudos to the editor, and the sense that the octopus god actually watches the programme should do it.

david.aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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