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)

Life and Style
LifeReddit asked a simple question with infinite answers this week
Life and Style
Pepper, the 3ft 11in shiny box of circuits who can tell jokes and respond to human emotions
techDavid McNeill tests the mettle of one of the new generation of androids being developed in Tokyo
Life and Style
beauty
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
transfers
Sport
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
film
News
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
News
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Sport
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Sport
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
tv
Sport
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
News
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
people
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
tech
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

(Junior) IT Systems Administrator / Infrastructure Analyst

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly ...

Sales Engineer - Cowes - £30K-£40K

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Sales Engineer - Cow...

Web / Digital Analyst - Google Analytics, Omniture

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading publisher in...

Sales Perfomance Manager. Marylebone, London

£45-£57k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice