Tom Mangold on Broadcasting

Reach for the garlic; the vampires of the BBC are killing current affairs
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Applications close today for the most unrewarding job in the BBC's fast-declining current affairs department. From tomorrow, in a quiet and anonymous conference room at Television Centre, a panel made up of BBC head honchos will sip tea and coffee, munch little cream biscuits and listen to Panorama editor wannabes outline their plans for the sick programme's possible recovery.

This surely, must be the ailing show's last chance of revival. With the recent departure from the BBC of its last lacklustre editor, the once-great current affairs flagship remains beached in its lonely late-night mooring, crewed largely by unknown reporters, delivering pint-sized audiences to watch an agenda overwhelmed by gloomy social issues. These usually involve people dying of something incurable or very rare, or starving in Africa. Small wonder audiences have sunk as low as 1.5 million.

Sorry to sound unsympathetic, but if Panorama makes one more film about the NHS, I shall personally sit on the steps of White City, pour unleaded petrol over myself and ignite in protest.

To make things even more dreary, last night the airtime was due to be devoted to some arcane documentary about whether fingerprints are forensically reliable or not. Just how irrelevant can Panorama become when its mission is so clearly defined: namely, to anticipate, report upon, investigate in detail and reach some revelatory conclusions on the biggest and most significant issues facing the world today. You know, like Dispatches on Channel 4.

So what you are not seeing on Panorama generally are reporters of reputation, chutzpah and experience telling you what the hell Iran is up to; what on earth is going on at the CIA; whether the Labour Party really is sawing at its own throat with rusty razor-blades; how Israel and Hamas intend to co-exist; just who is the 17-year-old wunderkind chosen for England's World Cup squad; how much longer can the Iraq imbroglio last before meltdown; and can anyone anywhere explain why our boys are in Afghanistan?

The appointment of a new editor will be BBC1's last chance to salvage the wreckage of its current affairs commitment. One more mistake and surely the game will be up. But the omens are not good. My former boss Mark Thompson in his BBC "state of the union" message devoted exactly eight words out of 4,000 - that's 0.2 per cent - to the subject of BBC TV current affairs. Here's what he said: "[We are going to] find new ways of shaping our current affairs." That's it. Mind-blowing stuff, eh? Big commitment by Britain's boss of public service broadcasting.

The next day the controller of BBC1, Peter Fincham, tried to placate a demoralised first-floor current affairs staff at the BBC's White City centre. But far from promising the open-heart surgery that Panorama needs to stay alive, he gave "an absolute guarantee" that not only would Panorama maintain its existing 40-minute format, but it would stay in its graveyard slot on Sunday nights. In other words, the patient will be left alone to pray, and to rot, in order to complete the self-fulfilling dream of those who do not wish current affairs well at the BBC.

What is it about Panorama that makes BBC executives reach for the garlic and the crucifix any time anyone mentions change? Why is that concept so utterly inconceivable? Had Fincham been employed by Times Newspapers half a century ago, he would presumably have guaranteed the paper would always remain a broadsheet with small adds all over the front page.

Why can't Panorama change? I'm convinced that Panorama has somehow become the BBC's medal of trust with its public; a symbol of constancy and reliability when the awful truth is that the brand has failed.

The carrot in the controller's promise/threat to keep the programme buried near midnight is of several "specials" to run in mid-week at prime time, usually 9pm. Trouble is, Panorama now fails just as spectacularly in prime time as it does in dead time. The reason is simple: broadly, the titles, the name, the music, the reporting style, the agenda - all have, like the department's venerable Question Time, long passed their sell-by date. So the larger audience is tired of the lot and hits the zapper the moment the programme appears.

Panorama could find Hitler's illegitimate son living happily with the daughter of a chief rabbi in a Bournemouth boarding house, and still the audience would stay away. Proof? Peter Taylor's exceptional Panorama special on the Stockwell Tube station death of Jean Charles de Menezes, screened in March at 9pm, copped a miserable 1.9 million audience. Sadly, no one gave this fine film a chance because Panorama has become a switch-off. Who do you know who watches it regularly, if at all?

Peter Fincham also promised his demoralised staff "hour-long, week-night special editions at 9pm". Oh yeah? So what happened last Wednesday? A Panorama "special" (on yet another poor person close to death) was first kicked out of its usual Sunday night slot because it got in the way of a major feature film; next the producer was told he could have a slot on Wednesday but would he cut 10 minutes out of the film first. (Imagine Van Gogh's agent: "Too many sunflowers there, Van old boy, take a few out, big canvases don't sell any more.") Then, what was left of the film was not run, as promised, at 9pm, but the truncated version appeared at 7pm (reaching a dismally small audience of 2.3 million). Why? Well, BBC2 was running The Apprentice at 9pm, ITV had the Uefa Cup Final, and Fincham could only fight back with a blockbuster film starting at 9pm. That's the commitment to current affairs now on the channel. Cinderella was treated like Madonna in comparison.

There are sadly no plans to change the transmission time, nor the running length of Panorama. There is some talk in the bazaars of a reporters' cull and bringing in big-name operators to do occasional assignments - Nick Robinson to fill the programme's permanent political void; Matt Frei, talented but underused bureau chief in Washington; Jeremy Paxman (approaching invisibility in the BBC), whose unique combination of investigative interviewing and agonised Weltschmerz would bring the crowds back into the tent.

It is absolutely right that the BBC chases high audience figures. What remains utterly baffling is why it simply cannot fuse informative, entertaining and popular current affairs at peak viewing time with those elusive viewers.

* One of the great success stories for television has been so-called "reality TV" - the illusion that you are peeping through an electronic keyhole at people behaving naturally, unaware that they are being filmed. Well, the genre may be a success but don't for one moment be fooled. As one who's spent a lifetime being filmed, I promise you I only have to see a camera being unloaded from a car and I pull my stomach in, adjust my clothes and wipe my sweaty face. So does everyone else.

The triumph of shows such as The Apprentice is not their "realism" (Apprentice is to real industry what Spooks is to the real MI5), but its clever selection of charismatic, televisual people who will do what is necessary to pretend they are being natural. That includes, sadly, introducing elements of gladiatorial television, where people are spiteful and hurtful to each other, destructively competitive and blind to their faults. In "reality celebrity" shows, this means getting as near to the on-screen bonk as the producer dares. Sadly, "reality TV" has no time or place for the quiet, the gentle, the soft-spoken, the ones with talent but no camera charisma.

The Apprentice is the bastard child of Annie Robinson's Weakest Link, where rudeness, bad manners, scorn and contempt are de rigueur. The one piece of undeniable realism on Apprentice is the deification of greed.

I have a theory that all this tele-sado-masochism and hero-worship of bullies like Ms Robinson and Master Sugar may have its roots in the disturbed background of the some of the ex-public schoolboys who now run television. I bet you that at least some of them were beaten and abused, shouted at and humiliated in their tender years. Is "reality television" their troubled backlash? Is there anything they'd like to tell us?

Tom Mangold is an author and was a senior correspondent with BBC Television News and 'Panorama' from 1964 to 2003