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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 November, 2003, 12:09 GMT
Panorama in the 21st Century

by Jane Corbin
Panorama reporter

There were chuckles in the office when they heard I was writing about my more than a decade's worth of experiences in the field with changing television technology.

Jane Corbin
Jane Corbin making her first ever Panorama in 1988
I, like most reporters, am firmly of the "the pen is mightier than the digital readout" school and have spent many long and happy years on the programme in blissful ignorance of the exact contents of the many silver boxes that have accompanied me from Moscow to Michigan and from Mombassa to Madras.

I can jam a mini-DV camera and wipe a computer disk faster than I can say "off the record", but even a technophobe like me can't fail to appreciate the revolution that has taken place in the equipment which enables us to report news and current events.

My very first Panorama, The shadow of the killing fields, was made in Cambodia in 1988 and introduced me to a cameraman who was to share many adventures and witness much human suffering with me around the world.

Enthusiastic and ever-resourceful, with a talent for actuality filming, Mike Spooner never missed a shot although he bore the weight of a 38lb Beta SP camera in temperatures of 38C and high humidity.

Digital editing

Amazing advances in graphics threaten to do away with the need for wayward and cantankerous reporters.
Jane Corbin

Mike could - and still can - bore for Britain on the technicalities of the cameraman's art. He always has the latest gizmo, the add-on, usually home made in his workshop or gleaned from a wacky internet site.

He introduced me to the joys of the tiny monitor plugged into the camera so that not only the producer but the reporter and any casual passer-by could comment critically on the framing of a shot.

With the advent of digital technology the huge cameras became smaller and more light sensitive without suffering a reduction in quality.

Digital editing systems arrived on the scene but although Panorama acquired its first Avid (editing suite) in 1990, it was sometime before we used it extensively.

When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, it was the first time that electronic newsgathering was right up at the front in a major war involving western troops. Panorama entered the fray too with the intention of broadcasting the first full-length documentary from occupied Kuwait.

Satellite dish

Jane Corbin in Basra
Jane Corbin being shown around a prison in Basra
As the world's heavyweight TV anchormen massed on the Saudi border with the coalition troops I attached myself to a minor prince-ling who was accompanying the all-important giant Kuwait TV satellite dish back into his country.

This proved to be a smart move, propaganda is always given priority in a war and we were amongst the first crews across the border with a US marine convoy.

We drove into a city of perpetual night - clouds of oil obliterating the sun as Kuwait's wells were fired by the retreating Iraqis.

We witnessed the aftermath of the "turkey-shoot" as the newspapers called it - the coalition cluster bombing of thousands of Iraqis at Mutla ridge. It was the most sickening sight I have ever seen.

Less than a week later Panorama broadcast a 50 minute programme - Kuwait, out of the ashes - from the back of a BBC News Land Rover with a small satellite dish attached to the roof.

To the wire

Panorama has always been up against the wire, part of its remit to be a very current affairs programme.
Jane Corbin
Feeding a short news report was one thing but we had never attempted to feed an entire programme. An edited tape was normally hand carried on a flight back to London if it had to be edited in the field.

Panorama has always been up against the wire, part of its remit to be a very current affairs programme. but however late the slot that Panorama is in, you can guarantee that Panorama will only just be ready in time, the heart stopping moments made worse by the need to ferry the tape 500 yards up the road to the transmission suites at Television Centre.

I remember one of the last broadcasts we made from Lime Grove, on a night which turned people's hair white as the system was strained to breaking point.

In July 1991 in Saddam's secret arms ring we were breaking the story of the involvement of a UK firm, Matrix Churchill, in Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons programme.

Two editors were each completing half of the film in a race for the finish when Peter Horrocks, the then editor realised there was not the necessary 40 minutes, let alone the added time to sprint to TV Centre.

So two dusty machines were wheeled out from under the stairs in Lime Grove and plugged in. One half of the film began running live while the other half was still being prepared. The decision was made to "hot switch" between them live on air over a shot of sunset and music to minimise the chance of the audience noticing.

Cameras on bonnets

Camera attached to a tank
Attaching a small camera to a tank
It was successful and there was rather more than the usual post-show curry and beer consumed that night.

The world is very different now with slick Symphony (digital editing suites) running our final edit. Amazing advances in graphics threaten to do away with the need for wayward and cantankerous reporters. DVcam, the professional format, is all the rage and the latest Gulf War in Iraq has seen this format come into its own.

I was in Basra for Panorama earlier this year working with camera and sound kit which is feather light in comparison with 12 years ago.

We have used mini DVs fixed to the bonnets of our vehicles by suction pads which have given us the ability to get a real sense of place in dangerous locations without standing on the street exposed to bullets.

Whole Panoramas are now shot and edited on mini DV to give the audience a genuine fly on the wall sensation.

Forefront

No longer do you have to fiddle with a laptop, hanging out of a hotel window at one in the morning to align it with a remote satellite to make a phone call.
Jane Corbin
The advances in technology go way beyond our camera and edit gear. Our armoured vehicles are lighter than the tank like vans we first used in the Bosnia conflict and our flak jackets have lighter antiballistic plates.

The satellite phone is hardly bigger than a GSM mobile you would use in the UK. No longer do you have to fiddle with a laptop, hanging out of a hotel window at one in the morning to align it with a remote satellite to make a phone call.

Scripts can be sent via email with a touch of a button, but the truth is that whatever the machines at the reporter's disposal it is still the "oily rags" as they self-deprecatingly call themselves, who unravel the mysteries of the machine.

Ever since the days of black and white TV, they have kept Panorama in the forefront of advances in television technology and enabled us to make revealing and memorable programmes.

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