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"But the real story has never been told ..." promised Network First (ITV), after a brisk recapitulation of received opinion on the Yorkshire Ripper, the official account of a man whose hatred of prostitutes turned pathological. This was a touch grandiose, particularly if you take "the real story" of the documentary to be its account of the imbued misogyny of the police investigation, the way in which "respectable" women were excluded from the list of his victims until such placating distinctions were no longer sustainable. Several women - Joan Smith and Nicole Ward Jouve among them - have already told that story well, anatomising the fatal prejudices which undermined the hunt for the killer. But Glyn Middleton's flawed film will have brought the shocking incompetence of the police investigation to a much larger audience. This was a portrait of a force close to panic, determined to minimise the scale of its failure.

The headline was this: Peter Sutcliffe started killing far earlier than he has admitted and far more indiscriminately. When he was finally caught, through a stroke of luck and the persistent suspicion of a junior policeman, he was brought to trial as quickly as possible, to appease public feeling. And there then existed a curious mutual reinforcement between Sutcliffe's chosen defence and the prosecution case. He wished to argue that he was mad, charged by God himself with killing prostitutes, and his mitigating narrative exactly matched that which the police had tenaciously clung to throughout their pursuit. The unavoidable implication that these were women who had literally solicited their deaths continued until Sutcliffe, in the cruel vocabulary of the time, made his first "tragic mistake". (Until then, apparently, he had been getting it right.)

Network First showed that the pattern was very different - as early as 1975 Sutcliffe had attacked a young girl who was nowhere near a red light district. Tracey Browne had sat down to take off her platform boots when she was approached by a man who struck up conversation. "He seemed a really nice, charming man," she recalled. "I had no reason to think I was in a dangerous situation." But when she turned away he struck her repeatedly with a ball-peen hammer. An approaching car frightened her attacker into throwing her over a nearby fence, thus saving her life. The identikit picture issued at the time bore a striking resemblance to Peter Sutcliffe, and to photofits issued after the attack on Marilyn Moore, who also survived, but when Browne went to the police to point out the connection she was treated almost as if she simply wanted to put a celebrity autograph to her wounds. Her inclusion on his list of victims would have muddied the pristine theory.

Even after it was inescapable that the Yorkshire Ripper would kill any woman he found alone and vulnerable the police were intensely reluctant to concede the fact. When an art student was attacked in Leeds at the height of the Ripper's activities (from behind, with a ball-peen hammer) one of the witnesses was told "if we decide to take this incident seriously we may need to contact you again". Her jaw had been shattered and her skull fractured but the gravity of the matter had yet to be decided on. Another attack in Ilkley, in which the attacker's appearance and method matched those of Peter Sutcliffe, was firmly ruled out of the Ripper investigation by superior officers. "All it would have done would be create more pressure," said a policeman, "and believe you me we were a sinking ship."

Middleton's film made a good case that the police virtually willed their myopia (Sutcliffe sat before them nine times, once wearing the boots whose imprint had been found at the scene of the crime) but he was guilty of short-sightedness himself in reconstructing the attacks. These scenes, complete with sudden gouts of blood and the grunting impact of Sutcliffe's blows, spoke the wrong language for a film partly intent on restoring the dignity of all the victims - they were drawn from popular cinema, far too mercantile and masculine a vocabulary, and one hopelessly tainted by its appetite for female victims.