TV chiefs accused of using crime for entertainment

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The Independent Online

Television executives were accused of turning crime into entertainment yesterday, after their decision to broadcast the police interviews of the serial killer Fred West.

The leading Scottish barrister Donald Findlay QC told the Edinburgh Television Festival that he could see no benefit to the public in the planned Channel 5 programme about the West murders and that he feared the consequences of the growing number of crime programmes in the schedules.

Condemning the Attorney General as a "disgrace" for giving Channel 5 permission to use the tapes, Mr Findlay told a packed auditorium that he was "appalled" at the prospect of the broadcast. He said: "It's one of the more despicable bits of television I've ever heard of. What benefit will it be to the public to hear the police interviews with this man? I'm concerned at the way television is using crime ­ it's almost becoming the latest sport in television."

In a debate featuring contributions from Kate Kray, the former wife of the East End gangster Reggie Kray, and Colin Stagg, the man cleared of murdering Rachel Nickell, the QC led fierce criticism of the glamorisation of criminals and the sensationalist use of crime reconstructions.

Television executives were taking people's misfortunes and making programmes out of them ­ possibly because they were cheaper than other forms of television, Mr Findlay said. He feared they were changing public attitudes, which could have a knock-on effect on juries.

He said even programmes such as BBC's Crimewatch appeared to be more interested in ratings than public service. "I have no doubt that Crimewatch has a role to play but I wonder what the purpose is of all the dramatic stuff in it. That is probably for the ratings," he said.

Seetha Kumar, a controller in the BBC's documentaries department, said she was not ashamed of crime programmes which attracted high ratings. "If people don't watch the programmes and respond to them, what's the point?"

Other executives joined in the defence of the benefits of crime-based programmes such as Crimewatch and the fictional accounts of prison life, such as Bad Girls, in the schedules.

Colin Shaw, Channel 5's controller of news and current affairs, said that from the death of the King of Denmark in Hamlet to Fred West, people were interested in "the extremes of the human condition".

He agreed many of his programmes were straightforward entertainment but said: "There is no reason why crime programmes can't entertain as well as inform. It's a subject that fascinates people. The problem comes when factual programmes are presented as public-service broadcasting and then stray into the entertainment areas."

Despite concerns from the floor about the value of broadcasting the Fred West tapes, he said there was good reason to use them in an analysis of the crime and its investigation. "The material has never been in the public domain, but it's now in the public domain for the first time," he said.

Ms Kray, who presented a series on criminals entitled Hard Bastards, said: "I'm showing exactly how it is." She said all the criminals she knew watched Crimewatch to check whether they were on it.

Mr Stagg said he had agreed to play himself in a dramatisation of the story of Rachel Nickell, who was murdered on Wimbledon Common, because he wanted to convince the public he was an innocent man and for the money because he was unable to get a job. He said he had endured a verbal mauling by the audience in a studio discussion of the murder, but the power of television was such that he would agree to a retrial on television "if it was done properly and not for sensationalism".