If the BBC was the only great institution created by Britain in the 20th century - which it was - then Panorama was undoubtedly its most famous television offspring; and its one-time presenter and contributor Richard Lindley's entertaining and candid chronicle of its first half-century does parent and offspring proud. Not that the BBC will think so, because the author delights in displaying its pomposities, timidities, eccentricities and absurdities - both institutional and personal - but not, I surmise, out of malice or perversity, but rather out of love and concern. In other words, Lindley pokes fun without sneering; teases rather than rubbishes. His pitch is exactly right.
Perhaps I ought to remind readers what Panorama was, as there must be many nowadays who never saw it when the great Richard Dimbleby - who was more important to the Coronation than the Archbishop of Canterbury - was its anchorman, or even in the Sixties, when its performing stars included John Freeman, Robert Kee, Woodrow Wyatt, Aidan Crawley, Malcolm Muggeridge, Robin Day and many others scarcely less celebrated. Quite simply, it was the most innovative, sophisticated and lively current affairs television programme before - there never were any before - or since. But such achievements on screen do not materialise out of nothing and, as this book shows, the atmosphere behind the scenes was thick with interdepartmental struggles, conflicting egos, turf wars, all well documented here with a mass of previously unpublished private, confidential memoranda and bitchy reminiscences. It makes for compulsive reading.
Two tasters will suggest the quality. One of Panorama's most famous producers, Paul Fox, remembers one particular would-be journalist who applied to him for a job on the programme. He had, it appeared, just come down from Oxford. But Fox decided he was just too brash, "a whipper-snapper trying to bullshit his way in". His name was Jeffrey Archer. Or a reminiscence by another famous Panorama figure, Michael Charlton, about Richard Dimbleby, "describing ruefully how, after a night raid on Berlin, Dimbleby had landed at an RAF bomber base and then travelled back to London by train, slumped in his seat, dishevelled and utterly exhausted. A woman passenger had snorted disapprovingly: 'I do think you might get up, young man, with all those poor men in uniform having to stand in the corridor'."
Panorama's glory years - according to Lindley - ended in the 1980s with the arrival at the BBC of John Birt, whom he loathes, even comparing him to Pol Pot. But sadly, where this book fails, like so many about the BBC, is in the author's inability to think more than superficially about what public service broadcasting journalism means. It has to mean, I fear, a willingness to dare to be dull, to be late with the news, to be cautious, to be un-innovative and unsophisticated. Lindley pours scorn on a Reithian executive for admonishing Panorama, in its planning stage, always to remember the precept: "When in doubt, leave out." But surely that is precisely what public service broadcasters ought to do, if they are to be found worthy of that description, even if it means lower ratings and fewer awards.
Lindley criticises Birt for having refused to allow Panorama to begin one of its programmes on Northern Ireland by highlighting a sensational quote from an interview with the C-in-C Land Forces. The general was quoted as saying "that the army has lost the land war against the IRA". But it seems to me quite obvious that Birt was right: not journalistically right, but in terms of responsible public service journalism, the definition of which must be journalism that takes into consideration not only the interest of the licence fee-payer in having an hour's enjoyable television, but also the interest of the same viewer in having a kingdom properly defended, its trade protected, its streets safe and so on and suchlike. It is not a question of being right-wing or left-wing; it is a question of understanding that there is more to public service journalism than journalism, just as there is more to cricket than cricket.
I am not a defender of John Birt managerially - where he was a disaster - but journalistically, his intentions were the best of any director general since Sir William Haley, and this indictment tends only to show up the mote in Lindley's own eye. This is not, however, to detract from the delight of a book that depends less on the quality of Panorama's programmes than on the riveting revelations of all the carry-ons off-screen.