The greatest disaster that ever overtook Panorama - and there have been a few - was the stunning world-scoop interview with Diana, Princess of Wales, oh so long ago. It was a disaster because the programme never recovered from the adrenalin rush that followed and has ever since continued to haunt Panorama. The show simply couldn't get over the ecstasy of that glorious moment - the headlines, the praise, the global take-up, the walking tall, the tangible deference shown by envious peers in the corridors of White City - ah, who wouldn't kill to bring all that back...
In those heady days, the world was our oyster, fat with the pearls of success. Of course it couldn't, and didn't, last. The famous Panorama globe just kept on turning, time refused to stand still, the moving figure writ, and having writ moved on, as ordinariness slunk back into the office.
The programme still has its own noticeboard just by the men's room in the exit corridor on the first floor of White City. In an echo of the programme's revered past, it is invariably plastered with favourable newspaper clips, reviews and any written comment that reflects well on the items or the reporters. This board has become a sort of Panorama shrine, reflecting the post-Diana obsession with "being noticed", receiving publicity, securing big audiences, being followed up in Fleet Street or parliament. But that obsession is at the heart of problems facing Panorama's welcome change to a serious time-slot on Monday evenings.
Last week's first edition of the revamp was accompanied by free BBC-generated publicity, on television, on radio, and online, of a quantity that David Beckham could have expected had he dumped Posh in favour of Kate Middleton. We are talking thousands of pounds' worth of free plugs for its programme on an IVF clinic in Harley Street. Unless you've been in a space station for the past two weeks you cannot have failed to have been touched by the unabashed free ads. And why not ? The BBC is entitled to plug what it likes when it likes, and Panorama, like Planet Earth is as good a cause as any.
So, three miles of free national publicity, a prime-time slot on BBC1, a rattling good public interest investigation (spoiled only by cheesy sub-Spooks music) - and what was the audience ? Alas, a "mere" three million. Barely more than Panorama's old graveyard slot around midnight on Sundays, far less than its same-time rival, Trevor McDonald's Tonight on ITV, and a good deal less than the BBC average for that slot over the past year.
Oh the schadenfreude of the print media. And the hypocrisy. After running copious pick-ups of the story as it continued to develop next day, many then compared Panorama's re-emergence in prime time as merely some sort of ratings battle which would be won or lost on audience figures and not content. You might have been forgiven for thinking that Endemol owns half of the press. Naturally, Panorama had finally met its Waterloo: "Tonight Wins Current Affairs Battle," yelped the Media Guardian. "Relaunch Fails to Boost Panorama," echoed a News in Brief paragraph in the London Evening Standard, and in case you missed the point, was needlessly repeated three pages later in Londoner's Diary as "A Cruel Blow for Panorama".
But isn't everyone missing the point? If Panorama, with all the hoopla, can only attract three million viewers for a serious and well-made, relevant and important programme, then that's it, folks. No more Princess Diana highs, no more huge audiences; gone for ever are the days when even one of my more mundane investigations of a Ministry of Defence scandal netted a whopping eight million viewers, and in the same time-slot.
Why in heaven's name must Panorama be judged by its audience size rather than the quality of its content ? What is public service broadcasting about if it fails to make available serious, sensible, responsible, informative (and, yes, entertaining where possible) television journalism at a peak time for those who want more than a hundred-word up-sums on their mobile phones about the major issues of our time?
Anyway, what's so bad about 11 per cent of the audience share for a provocative programme that required concentration and told you much you didn't know? Has anyone, anywhere, done any homework on the new media landscape? Have they understood the indifference of the iPod generation to 30-minute single-subject investigative stories ? Do they know that kids will soon be watching Hollywood blockbusters on their mobiles? That many have the attention span for serious journalism of a dying gnat? That my kids alone would no more miss EastEnders than stick needles in their eyes? Does Panorama now pander to their insouciance about world affairs or does it hold its intellectual position and hope that they come aboard sooner or later?
Why can Hello and The Economist share the same rack space without people jeering at The Economist for its "poor" circulation figures compared to a magazine that grovels at the altar of the great God Celeb?
There is still much ambiguity about Panorama's future direction. Personally, I twitch at the thought, not of Panorama dumbing down, but of what I know their recently departed (and he really has departed) top reporter John Ware fears will be the programme's lack of editorial ambition. I pray the programme doesn't become too consumer or Watchdog obsessed, nor that it becomes a carbon copy of Real Story, nor that, in trying to woo a younger, audience it neglects its 53-year-old duty to spend time, energy, money and true reporting talent to cover, in real depth, the big, strategic, vital issues of the day, whatever the figures.
My unsought advice to the toilers on the first floor is to put your heads down, push hard, ignore the irrelevant arguments about figures, concentrate on the uniqueness of your journalism, the superiority of your agenda and the classiness of your production techniques - and sod that noticeboard outside the loo.
Tom Mangold is a former presenter of 'Panorama'
No sympathy for licence-fee blues
Whispers in the bazaars not a hundred miles from the Culture department in Cockspur St, SW1, tell me that Tessa Jowell's struggles with the Treasury over the BBC licence fee were not helped by two factors which have very seriously annoyed MPs and civil servants.
The first, obviously, was the public relations debacle of the Jonathan Ross fee award - £18m over three years. There was also civil service unease at other, barely justifiable, fees paid to lesser stars, reportedly £3m to Anne Robinson, near on that to Graham Norton, £250,000 to newsreader Huw Edwards and £150,000 to Fiona Bruce. Top civil servants, generals and Field Marshals, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor earn less than £200,000 a year.
But what really stymied the Culture Secretary's attempts to defend the BBC's licence-fee case was the unashamed fat-cattery amongst its board of management. The Director General, Mark Thompson, while eschewing any more bonus awards for himself, received an inflation-friendly pay rise of 8.7 per cent (£59,000) last year to bring him up to £619,000 per annum. Jana Bennett, the Director of Television, received a mere £10,000 pay rise, taking her to a humble £334,000 per annum. Jenny Abramsky, the Director of Radio and Music, has to survive on a mere £322,000 per annum. Her pension pot may compensate - it contains just a few bob short of £4m. The Deputy Director General, Mark Byford, recently received a bonus of £40,000 on top of his modest £403,000-a-year stipend. His pension pot has only £2m in it.
But these are on-the-dole charity handouts compared to John Smith, the BBC's Chief Operating Officer, who collected a pay rise and bonus of £87,000 for his hard work, on top of his salary of £331,000.
At a time of declining audience figures, unrestrained and seemingly pointless empire-building with local radio stations that no one needs and digital channels that no one watches, is this really the time for the Board of Management to pay itself £3.72m a year ?
These mind-boggling sums are supposed to reflect equivalence with equally responsible figures in industry. But, funnily enough, no-one can think of a single very senior BBC executive who has been poached by industry. How odd.