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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 October, 2003, 16:20 GMT
Windows on the World

by Jeremy Paxman
Former Panorama reporter

Panorama is 50 years old on November 11, which makes it Britain's longest running television programme.

If Eastenders lasts that long, bunting will be hung from Broadcasting House, there will be a street party in Albert Square and the corpse of Peggy Mitchell will be dipped in gold and mounted on a plinth in Trafalgar Square.

Instead, the Panorama team may, at best, blackmail the BBC bosses into giving them a glass of warm Moldovan Riesling.

The programme long ago slipped into unfashionability, around the time that TV succumbed to the cult of the 'dish monkey' - reporters who stand decoratively beside the satellite link upon a rooftop in Kidderminster or Khartoum and do their best to tell us what they have been able to find out in the five minutes since they were last called on.

I suspect, though, that conscience will nudge many to acknowledge that there is something remarkable about a programme that can span two generations, rock governments, force resignations and reveal the inner secrets of a royal marriage.

Pay attention

Lorraine Heggessey
Lorraine Heggessey, controller of BBC One is an ex-Panorama employee

Even those very many institutions and individuals, from prime ministers to medical associations, who have been its victims, will have to concede that the world is a better place for having journalistic operations that cast a cold eye on everyone and everything.

The list of those who have worked on the programme reads (in the sort of cliché editors ought to wince at) like a Who's Who of British journalism, from Richard Dimbleby and Malcolm Muggeridge to David Dimbleby and Robert Harris.

The boss of Channel 4, Mark Thompson, the controller of BBC1, Lorraine Heggessey, and the BBC's Director of Television, Jana Bennett, to name but three, all served their time there.

Portentousness, that tone of 'this is the most important thing you have ever heard in your life: now sit up and pay attention', has been the prevailing voice of the programme for at least two decades. But it was not always so.

Once upon a time, Panorama was a magazine programme, whose most famous report was a despatch from Italy on the spaghetti harvest, broadcast on April 1.

Takeaway gaffe

The list of those who have worked on the programme reads like a Who's Who of British journalism
Jeremy Paxman

In time, the format changed from magazine to single-subject documentary. At a time when TV journalism dealt heavily in second hand ideas and information, it set out to rock the boat with original reporting that shattered illusion and afflicted the comfortable.

Going head to head with ITV's punchy World in Action on Monday evenings encouraged the competition, which can so often be the spur to originality: it was the place that made some of TV's finest producers.

Of course it was not always the nicest place to work. It was awash with large egos and unshared secret sources, and intensely competitive. As one particularly poisonous producer explained during my time on the programme, "It is not enough to succeed: others have to be seen to fail."

Fired off across the country and around the world, teams fought to make it onto the air. Editing sessions usually lasted all night. At about 10.30pm or so, the assistant would order a takeaway from a nearby restaurant.

On one occasion, he went down to reception, saw a Chinese-looking gent sitting there and demanded the spare ribs and egg fried rice. "I am," said the baffled oriental, "the Prime Minister of Singapore."

Dish monkeys

David Dimbleby
David Dimbleby - one of the famous names to have worked on Panorama
Then, sometime in the early hours, the programme editor would be summoned to see the rough cut of the film, suggest changes and try to spot libels. It paid to live nearby: often he arrived in his pyjamas.

In retrospect, it seems absurd that anyone could claim to be working on a considered piece of journalism in these frenetic circumstances. Sometimes, the second half of the film was still being cut while the first half was being broadcast.

Once, the finished item only made the gate because the film editor happened to have a pair of roller skates in the cutting room and took literally the instruction to 'get your skates on'.

With its slogan ' a window on the world', Panorama was invented in an age when the only way to air moving pictures from abroad was to film them on location, ship them back home and then spend endless hours in the laborious process of editing, scripting and dubbing.

Now you can take a satellite dish almost anywhere and broadcast live into sitting rooms across the land.

It makes for immediacy, which has perhaps marginalised the slower media formats. But immediacy can come at the cost of understanding.

Frankness

When it's on song, it still rattles cages. And that is the main justification for journalism of any sort
Jeremy Paxman

The TV news shows pictures of flooding across the country. But it does not necessarily have the time or inclination to ask why the floods keep occurring, or why developers have been throwing up houses in places where you're likely to have to eat your breakfast in Wellingtons.

No programme has a right to exist for ever. Each must justify its existence by telling people something that they want to or need to know. But Panorama was done no favours by the bosses at the BBC, who have shunted it around the weekly schedules like a rusting goods wagon in a siding at Crewe.

A guaranteed slot at 8pm or so on a Monday evening sounds as if it belongs to an age when families gathered around a flickering black and white box, father in cardigan and puffing on a pipe. In fact, it wasn't so long ago.

But it was before the Conservative broadcasting reforms which threw ITV to the barbarians, who killed off World In Action, with whom Panorama had shared a sort of no-mans-land in the battle for audiences. After that, there was just the shot and shell of the ratings war.

Rattling cages

Reporter Andy Davies confronts jockey Graham Bradley
Reporter Andy Davies confronts jockey Graham Bradley

First the programme was pulled out of the early evening front line, then from weekdays altogether. It sits now late on a Sunday night, at a time when most of us are worrying about the Monday morning commute or trying to find a child's missing left school shoe.

Its enemies say they don't know half of the reporters. But no-one had ever heard of me when I was on the programme. Besides, what the audience needs is frankness more than familiarity.

Like many others, I still watch Panorama occasionally. It tells me things I didn't know, such as who bombed Omagh, of the scandals in horse racing, or why prescription drugs can ruin people's lives. The programme Sex and the Holy City, examining the troubling consequences in the third world of the Vatican's teachings on birth control, has already got Catholic luminaries writing in outrage to the newspapers.

When it's on song, it still rattles cages. And that is the main justification for journalism of any sort.

Jeremy Paxman's article first appeared in The Mail on Sunday's Night and Day magazine.

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