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

'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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Raheem Sterling of Liverpool celebrates scoring the opening goal
footballLIVE: Follow all the latest from tonight's Capital One quarter-finals
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksNow available in paperback

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Life and Style
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
Jimmy Mubenga died after being restrained on an aircraft by G4S escorts
voicesJonathan Cox: Tragedy of Jimmy Mubenga highlights lack of dignity shown to migrants
Not quite what they were expecting

When teaching the meaning of Christmas backfires

Arts and Entertainment
Angelina Jolie and Sony Pictures co-chairman Amy Pascal at the Golden Globes in 2011
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Sphere Digital Recruitment: Display Account Manager

£25,000 to £35,000: Sphere Digital Recruitment: The Company Our client are th...

Sphere Digital Recruitment: Sales Director

£80 – 120K : Sphere Digital Recruitment: Sales Director – Ad tech - £80 – 120K...

Sphere Digital Recruitment: Senior Analyst – Global Sports Gaming Brand

40,000- 50,000: Sphere Digital Recruitment: Senior Analyst – Global Sports Gam...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Scandi crush: Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

Th Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser
'Enhanced interrogation techniques?' When language is distorted to hide state crimes

Robert Fisk on the CIA 'torture report'

Once again language is distorted in order to hide US state wrongdoing
Radio 1’s new chart host must placate the Swifties and Azaleans

Radio 1 to mediate between the Swifties and Azaleans

New chart host Clara Amfo must placate pop's fan armies
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

The head of Veterans Aid on how his charity is changing perceptions of ex-servicemen and women in need
Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

Its use is always wrong and, despite CIA justifications post 9/11, the information obtained from it is invariably tainted, argues Patrick Cockburn
Rebranding Christmas: More public bodies are refusing to give the festival its name for fear of causing offence

Rebranding Christmas

More public bodies are refusing to give the festival its name for fear of causing offence. They are missing the point, and we all need to grow up