In the ratings war, the Winner loses all

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The Independent Culture
IT WAS A brutal, premeditated axeing. Last week, Michael Winner's True Crimes (ITV), a programme loudly going on about its ratings, was savaged by an unrepentant programme controller. In mitigation, it has to be said that the perpetrator of the killing was at the back of a very long queue: Winner's show was generally regarded as the salacious, sensationalist end of the wedge of television crime re-enactment. Lest it be thought, however, that the slaying signalled the demise of the genre, last night's schedules came up more loaded with the stuff than a blagger's lock-up.

If Winner's True Crimes was the Sunday Sport of real-life crime telly, then Crimewatch (BBC 1) is page three of the Telegraph: mildly titillating, self-congratulatory, but fulfilling a proper function. Crimewatch File, a 50-minute run- through of how Nick and Sue had double-handedly solved the murder of Christoph Scliack, was a reminder of that function. It also served as a model as to how these things should be done.

A harmless eccentric on the fringes of the London legal scene, Christoph Scliack's fatal error was to attempt the casual pick-up of a psychopath in the autumn of 1990. Shepherd's Bush police (the BBC had to go a long way for the location reports for this one) reached a dead end in their inquiries and turned to Crimewatch. A re-enactment followed, seen by two Irish policemen watching in Dublin. They recognised the photofit, tipped off the Bush, and an arrest was made. All this was told in flat, matter-of- fact police-speak, which would have made the Jeffrey Dahmer case sound bland and served to reinforce Crimewatch's guiding principle that it is plod, rather than pyrotechnics, that solves crime. The only worry with Crimewatch is the degree to which it has become an extension of police thinking. Publicising police investigations is one thing, taking their line on justice is less editorially sound. Scliack's killer was found guilty not of murder but of manslaughter ('a worrying judgment', the detective who had led the murder hunt said). He could be out of prison in December. Harmless eccentrics in Shepherd's Bush won't be sleeping cheerfully in their beds at that news, was Sue Cook's dangerously Winner-esque conclusion.

Network First's 'Date Rape: The Investigation' (ITV) was another programme helping the Metropolitan Police PR department with their image-making. It was also a new departure for true-crime television: it wasn't about a true crime at all. Circumventing the rules which protect the identity of rape victims, the programme presented real police with a hypothetical date rape, presented in stunningly accurate manner by a group of actors. Then, it asked them to solve it.

The police had presumably granted their co-operation in the making of a lengthy film because they were anxious for it to be known that they took date rape seriously and would treat victims with dignity and kindness; otherwise all these cops playing at acting could be charged with wasting their own time.

If it was a PR strategy, however, it failed. After watching the scenes in which the victim was asked to strip on to a sheet, wrap herself up in a paper suit and then answer a series of, albeit gently phrased, questions about her sex life, it would take a tough constitution indeed to reach for the phone after being attacked by someone you know.

Nevertheless, Network First made rivetting viewing. Simply because, as with Crimewatch, it was not remotely salacious, sensationalist or objectionable despite the tricky material. Also, and perhaps this is no coincidence, it was not presented by Michael Winner.