He's a celebrity - get him out of here

The BBC's current affairs flagship hits a new low, thanks to a former pop star

Panorama - Cocaine: Alex James in Colombia BBC1

Is the dumbing down of Panorama at last complete? So it seems. It's now a year since the programme was slashed to half an hour, returned from its graveyard slot on Sundays to prime time (Mondays, 8.30pm) and given a horrible tabloid sensibility that recently had it pitifully milking the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in a "special" that failed to turn up even one significant new piece of evidence. Perhaps by way of celebration, then, the producers sent Alex James, late of Blur, to Colombia to investigate the cocaine trade for the latest edition (28 January).

I wonder how Panorama's real stars - serious, brave journalists such as Jane Corbin - felt about this. Pretty sick, I imagine, given that James's sole qualification for the task was that, when he was a pop star, he famously loved to powder his nose. What next? Dot Cotton from EastEnders takes on the tobacco giants? Or here's an idea: get the guy who plays Charlie in Casualty to make a film about MRSA - that'll get those bloody nurses washing their hands.

I do try to be grown-up when I write reviews, but since it would be a total fabrication to call this programme grown-up - or even, come to that, adolescent - I might as well admit that when I looked back at the notes I'd made while watching it, I found I'd scored the phrase "what an arse" in the margin no fewer than three times.

The film began with our "reporter" introducing himself. "I'm Alex James, and I'm a farmer," he said. No, you're not, Alex. You're a rock star who bought himself a farm, which is an entirely different state of affairs. With a flick of his poncey fringe, James held up a letter he'd received from the president of Colombia inviting him to see at first hand the miserable effects of the cocaine wars: landmines, kidnappings, human displacement, general destruction of the environment.

Journalists get killed covering this stuff: some 50 of them in the past 15 years, in fact. But was our cute little bass player trepidatious? Apparently not. He could hardly wait. Here, after all, was yet another chance for him to press his home-made cheese on an unsuspecting foreign dignitary.

So, off he went. Once out there, he undoubtedly had amazing access, from the Black Hawk team with whom he went out spraying coca crops in the rainforest to the drug cartel's full-time contract killer in whose "taxi" he took a spin. But did his insights into these experiences have to be so glib? Even when trying to convey fear, he couldn't resist gilding his statements with something more smug. "I'm out of my depth," he said, hopping into Mr Killer's cab. And then: "This is a long, long way from a cheeky line at a dinner party in Notting Hill."

This carry-on reached its nadir when he finally got to meet President Álvaro Uribe. First, we were treated to the ridiculous spectacle of James handing over a box of his farm-fresh fromage. The president sniffed it, politely. Uribe, a patrician right-winger and US ally, is determined to stamp on the drug cartels - they fund the Farc, the revolutionary guerrillas who murdered his father - and several attempts have been made on his life as a consequence.

James asked him a couple of vague questions, and was told that every line of cocaine snorted in Britain is simply more "gasoline for assassinations". Fine. Once the meeting was over, however, James began acting like some doe-eyed groupie. "I support him!" he said joyously, punching the air. Good grief. If Michael Crick were suddenly to have announced on Newsnight that he really fancies Yvette Cooper, and cannot therefore be expected to unpick her latest legislative proposals, I don't think I could have been any more appalled. Some will argue what we might call the Channel 4 battery chicken defence for this film - namely that celebrity can, and should, be used to right moral wrongs. Maybe so. But the key words here are "documentary" and "Panorama". A once-mighty current affairs programme is reduced to screening the ill-informed, partisan burblings of a pop-star cheese-maker with a daft fringe and, by his own account, "gringo Bond Street boots". Please, someone, make it stop.

Pick of the week

The Cult of Sunday
3 February, 8.35pm, BBC4
Look back at Sunday telly starts with All Creatures Great and Small. Moo!

Ashes to Ashes
Starts 7 February, 9pm, BBC1
DCI Gene Hunt tackles flicked hair, feminism – oh, and the odd crime.

Who Killed the Playboy Earl?
7 February, 9pm, Channel 4
The Earl of Shaftesbury in a cautionary, class-bound tale.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, God