Clash of the current affairs

The BBC’s flagship current affairs show Panorama relaunches next week with a new primetime slot and a reduced running time. And although he’s used to fronting big name programmes on both radio and TV, new host Jeremy Vine has revealed he is terrified of the prospect of being the face of the 53-year-old news institution and is praying it will be a success for him and his employers.

The revamped version of the programme will be aired on Monday at 8.30pm and Vine will be dividing his time between being the show’s main presenter, and reporting. Vine told Press Gazette that the show is not compromising its standards by shifting to prime time and cutting its running time from 40 to 30 minutes and stressed the importance of making the show audience-led and accessible.

The programme was consigned to the ‘graveyard’slot on Sunday nights six years ago, leading many to conclude that the BBC had lost its grip on the current affairs agenda. Former director general of the BBC Greg Dyke said while in charge that it would never return to primetime. But return it has.

Yet it will have to make do without veteran reporter John Ware, who announced his departure in December after more than 20 years. Ware told The Guardian last year that the format change was ‘the last chance’for the iconic show.

Many have speculated that the re-launched Panorama will be guilty of compromising its traditional standards and ‘dumbing down”, but Vine strongly believes it is Panorama’s job to reach a mass audience.

He said: ‘When you move to prime time you’ve hit the jackpot. We’re so excited to be going to a slot where we can be seen by many more people than we would on a Sunday night.

‘We have to accept the time constraints on us, but in the end I think half an hour is enough to tell the story. On Newsnight the big issues are frequently dealt with in the first 15 minutes. The ‘dumbing down’ argument is getting increasingly threadbare. The whole point of Panorama when it started in 1953 was to be a big show accessible to everyone who’s got a TV on a Monday night.

‘The BBC has taken its most serious current affairs brand back to primetime and stuck it in among all the pop and entertainment shows and then we’re accused of dumbing down because of that. I find it unbelievable.’Vine, who presents a lunchtime program on Radio 2, believes that to be more accessible, the programme’s agenda must be audience-led. Also, videos and longer reports will be posted on the Panorama website, all in an attempt to make the show more accessible.

He said: ‘As a radio presenter my eyes have been opened to the fact the audience have better stories than we do,’he said. ‘We need to open the windows and doors and say: ‘what have you got’? We’ve found that the results are truly astonishing.

‘It’s got to be audience-driven. But we will do foreign news, some of the traditional long-range investigations. It will be a good selection.’Vine joins a long line of distinguished journalists who have presented the programme, such as Richard and David Dimbleby and Sir Robin Day, and admits he is somewhat frightened by the prospect.

He said: ‘I’m terrified! It’s high stakes for everybody. But I’m proud of my employers – the Beeb has done a very brave and dramatic thing in moving it to Mondays. ‘I’m praying for them and I’m praying for me.”

Ask Dispatches’ commissioning editor how the programme has raised its game in response to Panorama’s relaunch and you’re likely to receive a dismissal.

‘We were good before, so it would be a mistake to say that we’ve raised our game in response,’says Channel 4’s Kevin Sutcliffe.

As many of the Dispatches films are highly investigative long-term projects, many had been planned long before anybody at the BBC decided to schedule Panorama at 8.30pm on Mondays in competition with Dispatches’ 8pm to 9pm slot, so critics looking to see C4 on the defensive may be disappointed.

What the show is planning to do, however, is to continue producing what it describes as: ‘investigative journalism of the highest order that is fearless, uses its elbows, is not afraid to cause trouble and ask difficult questions.’Sutcliffe defines the programme’s approach as straightforward – a mixture of being brave in the journalism, committed but straight talking. When viewers are taken through a Dispatches hour, although the subject matter can sometimes be tough, Sutcliffe argues that the way the storytelling and the elements are put together is accessible enough to make them want to stay with it.

Thematically Dispatches does not intend to deviate much from its main staples – Iraq, the war on terror and the war in Afghanistan are likely to dominate the year in various ways. This week the show opened with two films by Sean Langan about Afghanistan. Sutcliffe stresses that the opening film at the beginning of the year is an important statement of intent.

‘These are two huge films about an important piece of British foreign policy that is not going well, to put it mildly. It’s important that we open with something that is provocative, makes you think, is investigative and shows you something you don’t see elsewhere.’With the coming Labour leadership change, politics will increasingly be on the agenda, and Dispatches will continue with a mixture of views on how Britain is run. But whether Dispatches will stick to its one-hour format is a topic Sutcliffe avoids being pinned down on. ‘It is a great format for us – people stick with it, our research shows they don’t leave it once they’ve started watching it. It’s a commercial 48 minutes and that’s the statement that we are making,’he says. ‘It leaves us quite a lot of room to play with. I’m very pleased that I still have the hour, not that there was any debate about that, and it means that I can make things with impact.’Channel 4 is as eager, it seems, to win over other journalists as they are the viewing public. ‘We have reasonable audience figures but what’s important about our programmes is that they get us noticed. That’s key for us – seeing Dispatches in the papers, because the programme is breaking new stories and doing new journalism.’He says that one of his indicators on the success of a show is if, after he’s shown editors an early copy of the film, they not only buy the story but go on to commission articles of the back of it.

‘Nobody wants to puff a television piece unless it has something in it. It’s very important to us that other journalists see what we’re doing is fresh. It’s a better way of saying that we’re good at what we do, that other journalists pick up on our stories.”

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