Media: Not the 'Nine O'Clock News': Michael Buerk fronts a BBC programme that has been criticised as gory. John Dugdale on the dangers of mixing fact with fiction

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The Independent Online
'I WAS on the original Crimewatch team,' recalls Peter Salmon, 'and we used to say: 'We've created a Frankenstein's monster, and it could get loose. We've got to make sure that there's a special cell so that only we can operate it.' '

As head of features at BBC Bristol, Salmon has now created a second monster: 999, a series based on reconstructions of real emergencies, which he sees as a cross between Crimewatch and the Bristol-produced drama Casualty.

There is also a resemblance to an American hit show, Rescue 911, with a few differences. According to Salmon, 'Rescue 911 doesn't contain any public service information. And it's presented by William Shatner (Captain Kirk in Star Trek), which I wouldn't dream of doing because this isn't make-believe. You can't have someone zapping aliens with a ray gun one minute, and dealing with genuine stories the next.'

Previous series about the emergency services have been documentaries concerned with a single organisation. 999, in contrast, is a 50-minute magazine that takes in the whole spectrum from coastguards to inner-city fire crews.

Faction replaces fact, except in the reporter Fiona Foster's hectic video dispatches from the front line. Each programme includes two extended reconstructions, using actors alongside the real rescuers and rescuees - tomorrow's edition features a farming accident and a recent incident in which a trainee pilot was 'talked down' after his instructor suffered a heart attack.

Michael Buerk's role as presenter requires him to lead an unusual double life during the series's seven-week run. On Thursday nights he fronts this show, which is unashamedly journalism-as- entertainment and he is still the anchor of the Nine O'Clock News.

The most recent confirmed viewing figure for 999 is 12.8 million, with a high audience appreciation index of 83. Reviews have been largely favourable, and even the Sun's Garry Bushell could not withhold praise for the 'smashing reconstructions'. Others have been less enthusiastic. Henry Porter in the Evening Standard asked: 'Should we indulge this lust for gore?' Such attacks appear to be directed more at the generalised spectre of 'tabloid television' than at 999 itself.

Absent from the British version is the intrusive 'over-the-paramedic's-shoulder' footage found in Rescue 911. There are no deaths, as only successful rescues are depicted; the emotions evoked - desire for another person's survival, admiration for professional life-savers - are wholly positive.

Buerk is 'disinclined' to talk to the Independent, following a review of 999 in its sister Sunday paper in which Allison Pearson wrote that she was revolted by the programme's 'ghoulishness beyond the dreams of any Lockerbie picnicker'. But he has defended the series by contrasting it with other reconstruction- based formats: 'ITV's True Crimes and BBC's Crimewatch have to do at root with man's immorality. 999 looks at the other side of the coin. It makes compulsive television, but it also says something constructive about the human spirit. It's people being heroic rather than criminal.'

Salmon elaborates: 'If you've emerged from the BBC public service philosophy it's inconceivable that you would make something that wasn't careful and cautious. We agonise about what to leave in or take out, and we regularly curb the dramatic tendencies of our directors.' Nevertheless, some of the reconstructions still seem over-influenced by fictional models: an invisible sound system playing thriller soundtrack music is often heard during the rescues.

Roger Bolton, head of factual programming for Thames TV, is impressed by 999 but ambivalent about its success: 'The danger is that you get swamped by inferior imitations, and that other forms of factual programming will be sacrificed. After December, This Week ceases, and the ITC mandate to carry current affairs in peak on ITV expires. There's a risk of crime shows and programmes like 999 becoming the only factual prime-time series.'

Bolton's colleague Paul Woolwich, editor of This Week, has similarly predicted an ITV dominated by 'what is known in America as 'infotainment', which means celebrity lives, unsolved true-life mysteries, and 'reality TV', things like live rescues and car chases'.

British terrestrial television already has a number of programmes that can be categorised as 'infotainment': Crimewatch and its BBC spin-offs and ITV imitations, Michael Winner's True Crimes, That's Life, The Cook Report. All have at least a claim to social value. The most controversial example, the True Crimes reconstruction of the Rachel McLean murder investigation, is justified by Robin Paxton, LWT's controller of features and current affairs, on the grounds that 'it told you something new about the case'.

Though agreeing that 'there's a genre of reality television that's extraordinarily sleazy', Paxton contends that 'ITV won't venture down that track'. It is, however, stepping up its output in the crime field.

At Monday's autumn launch, the network unveiled Crime File - a hybrid weekly series combining LWT's Crime Monthly with one-hour films based on real murder, fraud and kidnapping cases, made by various ITV companies. Another highlight of the season is a dramatisation of the Brinks-Mat robbery.

Like Crimewatch or The Cook Report, 999 is a classic compromise between populist and public service tendencies. On the one hand, the packaging is tabloid - it sells itself to the viewer with a relish and confidence unusual in a BBC programme. On the other hand, the production values are high, and Buerk functions as a guarantor of journalistic integrity.

The series came under scrutiny at a recent BBC Programme Review Board. Discussion was reportedly animated, with some executives arguing that its sensationalism was incompatible with the Corporation's upmarket strategy. But the controller of BBC1, Jonathan Powell, is said to be a firm supporter - and with justification: the show almost immediately reached number three in the ratings.

(Photograph omitted)