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Auntie gets emotional

Soap opera meets reality TV in proposals for making over Panorama, the BBC's flagship current affairs programme.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

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Panorama searches for the truth every Sunday at 22:15 BST on BBC 1’, is the proud boast on the Panorama website (1). Of course, it sounds faintly comical. Even without the bathetic effect of the schedule information, that earnest phrase ‘searches for truth’ jars in a culture that is ill at ease with such grand aspirations.

Nobody who knows anything about British television will have been shocked by the contents of a ‘creative brief’ leaked to the Guardian this week, which proposed a relaunch of Panorama, making it ‘more accessible and enjoyable’ (2). Instead, executives are urged to bring in ‘warmer’ faces and conduct ‘human interest, emotional’ interviews, and even to pick up storylines from EastEnders as subjects to cover (ironic at a time when the soap is having its own ratings crisis).

Essentially, it is proposed that the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme takes on the values of reality TV. While the BBC is at pains to point out that the brief is one of many designed to stimulate thinking, and does not represent policy, it certainly represents a trend that has been evident in television for some time.

Paradoxically, the immediate practical problem the BBC faces is that new chairman Michael Grade has ordered current affairs to be given a more prominent position in an effort to bolster the corporation’s reputation as a serious broadcaster. Executives fear that moving Panorama to peaktime on a week night will harm its viewing figures, however. If the programme is to be up against popular programmes on other channels, the thinking goes, it will have to compete on the same terms. In order to follow the letter of Grade’s order, it will be necessary to go against the spirit. Hence, the creative brief.

Even when executives set out to affirm their commitment to ‘serious, rigorous, trustworthy journalism and analysis’, as deputy director general Mark Byford puts it, they end up doing the opposite (3). The BBC wants to be seen to put serious programmes at the heart of its schedules, but it lacks the resolve to make this happen.

There are two unquestioned assumptions underlying this problem. The first is that people will not watch serious current affairs programmes. The second is that programmes can only be justified on the basis of how many people watch them. The first assumption is unproven for the simple reason that viewers are rarely given a chance. The usual schedulers’ trick is to put programmes on in the graveyard slot and cite the resulting poor viewing figures as evidence that the public is not interested. When broadcasters really believe in a programme, they put it on when the maximum number of people will be able to watch it.

The second assumption betrays contempt for the viewers themselves. By focusing on accessibility rather than the objective qualities of programmes, broadcasters undervalue what really matters to those viewers. In the case of current affairs, that is surely accuracy and depth of understanding. If a programme has those things, it is worth broadcasting. When, instead, the priority in current affairs is accessibility, one has to question whether the BBC really is committed to truth at all.

This suggests a deeper problem. While broadcasters hide behind their prejudices about the viewers, blaming ‘market pressure’ for the intellectual weakness of their programmes, one has to ask whether they are actually capable of making intellectually serious programmes. It is tempting to suggest that the managers and ratings-watchers at the BBC should take a back seat and let the journalists get on with what they are good at. As former Panorama reporter Richard Lindley has previously argued on spiked, with a change of heart at the top of the BBC, ‘once again, the best journalists inside and outside the BBC will be clamouring to climb aboard the flagship and earn Panorama the sort of reputation it used to enjoy’ (4).

This may be unduly optimistic, however. While complaints about dumbing down tend to focus on scheduling and presentation issues, critics tend to be much kinder about the existing quality of journalism on programmes like Panorama. In fact, this is where criticism is needed most. No doubt there are many talented journalists doing valuable work, but the cultural shift that is expressed in the BBC’s creative brief has had an equally important effect on journalism itself.

Recent Panorama programmes have included ‘Miracle baby grows up’, a report based on research into the effects of premature birth, but which was largely focused on the stories of families of premature babies, offering a soft focus, human interest approach. Again, ‘School Siege – the survivors’ stories’, covered the Beslan siege from the point of view of the surviving victims, inevitably focusing on the emotional effects of the siege rather than examining the politics either in the Russian or the international context. This is not trash TV; these are well-produced, thoughtful programmes, but the ‘truth’ they seek out tends to be of a personal and emotional kind rather than a social and political one.

Back in 1997, then BBC News executive Tony Hall marvelled at the emotional public response to the death of Princess Diana. ‘We learnt that emotion has its political dimension, that by giving voice on our airwaves to “ordinary” individuals’ thoughts and feelings, we could get at some kind of truth, which would otherwise elude us, no matter how many facts we assembled.’ (5) The BBC’s enthusiastic embrace of ‘Dianamania’ was an important learning experience, and signalled a profound shift in news values. Since then, the job of journalists has increasingly come to involve making a connection with people by focusing on personal stories and emotions.

There is more to the changes proposed to Panorama than ratings-chasing. Even if the crasser, more superficial suggestions are shelved, the underlying shift in the way that current affairs are understood means that, whenever programmes like Panorama are broadcast, their content is likely to share some of the values of reality TV. The important battle is not about scheduling and presentation, then, but about how we understand society and the world, and how we interpret ‘the search for truth’.

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) Panorama website

(2) BBC plans radical rethink of Panorama, Guardian, 27 September 2004

(3) BBC on defensive over brief for touchy-feely Panorama, Guardian, 28 September 2004

(4) Panorama – a sinking flagship?, by Richard Lindley

(5) The Times (London), 10 September 1997

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Culture

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