Living up to its promises

Television - <em>Panorama</em> was once dull and medicinal viewing. Andrew Billen on its glorious re

As both a brand and a programme, Panorama has been mishandled for decades. Its decline from TV's most-watched programme in the Fifties to the slot once reserved for quasi-religious documentaries on Sunday night itself deserves a special investigation by the programme. It has already been the subject of a 400-page history by one of its former star reporters, Richard Lindley (Panorama: fifty years of pride and paranoia, reviewed in the NS on 30 September).

In recent years, it has had every kind of indignity heaped upon it, from the first-write-your-script regime imposed by John Birt and the witticism of his apparatchik Glenwyn Benson that "it wouldn't matter if only five people watched", to the humiliation of its being cut down to 45 minutes, its number of editions reduced to 30 a year and its budget hacked. The final blow, struck two years ago this month, pushed it to the very margins of weekend prime time.

In my recollection, however, the Panorama of the late Sixties and Seventies, when it was at the height of its prestige, was dull and medicinal viewing most weeks. Tuesday's headlines were invariably made instead by Granada's World in Action, whose investigative films aired at precisely the same time, back in the days when public service broadcasters observed things called ratings truces. The shift to Sunday night seemed to give us the ideal excuse not to pretend to have watched it.

The editions of the past fortnight, however, have made me think I have been missing out. The Corruption of Horse Racing on 6 October was the one that made the news, of course, and quickly claimed the scalp of the Jockey Club's security director, Major-General Jeremy Phipps. Enough has been reported of the programme's findings: that bookies have funded no-lose betting accounts with jockeys in return for tip-offs, that the sport has been infiltrated by organised crime, that races are fixed, horses doped, and that two of our most distinguished jockeys, are banned from racing in Hong Kong, but continue to race here.

The victorious legal struggle that the programme-makers endured for the right to expose the above has been justly celebrated. Yet, in a sense, the investigation itself was the least impressive aspect of the film, for most of the material was handed over by Roger Buffham, Phipps's sacked predecessor.

What was exemplary was the way the story was told: in the first place its clarity, so that someone who has never been to a racecourse in his life could follow it, but also the confrontations it engineered in the paddocks of its suspects, its reconstructions, the secret filming, and its eye for personalities, whom it would freeze in the moment of their greatest fibs. The racing world clearly throws up characters from across all classes; and the producer, Stephen Scott, and reporter Andy Davies showed a taste for social comedy.

Although he has since said he was sad about Phipps's fate, Davies stitched the old boy up masterfully. Continuing to film while, mid-interview, Phipps was briefed by a worried PR - and then asking him what he had been told to say - showed real nerve. The programme earned its four million viewers, Panorama's fifth-highest audience since its exile from Mondays.

Sunday's edition, The Secrets of Seroxat, exposing the alarmingly common and harmful side-effects of the much-prescribed, supposedly non-addictive antidepressant, was less amusing, but only because its subject was much more serious. And, if the Jockey Club was quick to resort to the law, how much more must the BBC have feared a pre-emptive strike by the drug's maker, GlaxoSmithKline. The pharmaceutical industry's bottom lines are not to be mocked.

Again, Panorama was hitching a ride on previous investigative work. In this case, it was by Dr David Healy, who lost a university post, he believes, after mentioning in a lecture the absence of research into the links between selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and suicide. Healy later became the expert witness in an American court case brought by the son of a man who had been prescribed the drug and two days later massacred his family. The New Statesman has also run a major story on Seroxat.

But again, the programme found a way of making the findings into gripping television - in this case by using case histories, video-film from the American court case and cinematic devices such as moody background music and artful film edits (we cut from one alleged victim walking in the rain, to another recording a video diary as her roof leaked). Again a skilful interviewer, who had mastered her subject, hung an official spokesman out to dry.

These were powerful, important, newsy, well-resourced and good-looking shows. Their reporters, Andy Davies and Shelley Jofre, respectively, are young but far from lacking in personality. Davies, open-necked, affable, must have looked harmless enough to his prey. Jofre's style, meanwhile, is sharp, Scottish and inquisitorial: Lorraine Kelly with a stiletto blade.

Panorama's new advertising line is "Exposing the Truth". After its doubtful report on how Hollywood "predicted" 9/11 earlier this year, it seems to be living up to it. This season has so far had very little to do with the Panoramas of its alleged heyday. Never mind. If it goes on like this it will hail a return to the heyday of something more exciting: World in Action.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times

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