Remote control - Saturday 19 October 2013

BBC Crimewatch programme showing a re-enaction of the events surrounding Madeleine McCann disappearance in Portugal in 2007.
BBC Crimewatch programme showing a re-enaction of the events surrounding Madeleine McCann disappearance in Portugal in 2007.

Setting the timeline for television

By the time the familiar theme tune kicked in a record number of viewers were sat in their armchairs ready to watch Crimewatch (BBC1 Monday).

An estimated 6.7m people - double the programme’s normal audience -tuned in for what was billed as ‘a fresh version of events’ in the inquiry to find missing child Madeleine McCann.

The ratings success was assured by days of careful leaking of titbits about an investigation now in the hands of the Metropolitan Police.

As an exercise in generating maximum publicity to draw viewers it was an undoubted success.

But there is an uncomfortable truth behind every Crimewatch which was brought into sharp focus by Monday’s McCann special.

All of the exclusive artist impressions, details about new suspects and fresh theories were all neatly packaged up for the night and wrapped in dramatic music and reconstruction.

If these are all vital clues which form the basis of a crucial appeal for public help in finding a missing child should they be withheld for a television programme or released to potential witnesses as soon as they are available?

Are producers right to demand exclusive material in return for a prime time television slot and are police investigators within their rights to play along with this game?

The teams at Crimewatch and the Met can point to the 1,000 phone calls as evidence of a successful strategy. The programme’s editor called the response ‘truly unprecedented’.

No doubt the ends can be hailed as justifying the tactics if the all important breakthrough is made.

But how long have those e-fits been available and waiting for the green light from Crimewatch to be released?

Would any have been better served in circulation during the holiday season when thousands of tourists were heading to Portugal?

The first 20 minutes of the programme was handed over to the McCanns to recap a story which still leaves many people uncomfortable.

The new information then came in a 10 minute slot which produced a few fascinating revelations on a crime which clearly still holds the nation in its thrall.

As a piece of television it was gripping but as a police hunt for a stolen little girl it posed questions over the blurring of entertainment and criminal investigation.