As a former news presenter, Kirsty Young is no stranger to some of the more gruesome stories that occupy our airwaves. Yet when she took over as anchor of the BBC’s Crimewatch seven years ago she found her mettle seriously tested.
“Watching the crime reconstructions is a very emotional thing and in the beginning I wasn’t very good at switching off that part of my brain when on air,” she recalls. “I had a catch in my throat once too often and I had to find strategies to deal with that. Rather predictably it’s things that involve children. I still have to work hard to concentrate in those moments.”
Who can blame her? As the mother of two daughters – Freya, 13, and eight-year-old Iona by her husband, businessman Nick Jones – some of the show’s themes must chime all too horribly. Young, 45, admits that what she calls the “sickening churn” of realising what people are capable of still catches her out sometimes.
“It happened just recently when we showed CCTV of a middle-aged man exposing himself to two young girls in a shop,” she recalls. “It was a relatively trivial case but for those young girls it was a horrible thing. And it might be to do with being the mother of two daughters, but I was particularly delighted to get a conviction off the back of the show after people phoned in with information.” As the public does every time Crimewatch is broadcast – and have been doing for the past three decades. The show is 30 years old this year, an occasion that is being marked by an episode with a number of special features, including a new interview with Kate and Gerry McCann, as well as relatives of other high-profile murder victims in which Crimewatch helped play a role in securing a conviction.
The McCanns, of course, need no introduction. Since their daughter Madeleine went missing from an apartment in the Portuguese resort of Praia da Luz in May 2007, their plight has haunted many parents. A Crimewatch appeal for new information in October last year helped reenergise the police investigation and provide new leads.
As part of that appeal the couple were interviewed by Young, who confesses that it was one of the more challenging episodes of her career. “You are asking two people to relive the most appalling day of their life, one I can’t even begin to conjure,” she says. “Any parent has that moment of ‘What happened, where are they?’ – and if you have it for three seconds it’s torture. So the idea they have lived with that all these years…you can’t imagine it. Then you’re asking them to relive it all over again. It’s not something you do without great thought.”
She was left admiring their strength. “They’re very together, they held each other’s hands throughout the interview. They have a great but incomplete family – and that’s the point. They are fundamentally driven by the fact that there are no knowns beyond the fact that their lovely little girl was taken from her room.”
What also struck her, as it has when meeting any family with a relative who has been taken from them in brutal fashion, is what she calls the “ripple effect” of the aftermath. “Particularly with murder, it profoundly affects everyone who loved the victim,” she says. “It’s not just the parents, it’s the siblings, grandparents, the cousins, friends. I remember Kate McCann telling me that one of her preoccupations was how she was going to tell Madeleine’s grandparents she was missing. She knew it was going to utterly change their lives, too. We often forget that.”
Yet there isn’t a typical response from those who have had suffered a traumatic loss. “I have interviewed people who say, ‘We talk about him all the time, we still celebrate his birthday’. And I talk to others who never mention the victim’s name – it’s a silent heartache at the heart of the family.”
When it comes to her own family she does, on occasion, share some of what she has witnessed with her older daughter. “At eight Iona is too young, but I do use the show as an opportunity to talk to Freya about what happens and the risks people take,” she says. “I talk to her about young women being assaulted, how for perfectly reasonable reasons like walking home a certain way, we can leave ourselves vulnerable without realising it. But I balance that out – I don’t want them to think the world is a bad place.”
Indeed, for all the doom and gloom, Young insists that Crimewatch is strangely life-affirming. “Because every month the phone lines light up and you get thousands of people who want to help, who want to do the right thing rather than the wrong thing. And they far outnumber the ones committing these brutal crimes.”
Young believes it occupies a unique, and cher- ished, placed within the TV schedules. “It’s the very definition of public service broadcasting. It couldn’t really be made anywhere else but the BBC. It’s a very labour-intensive programme, but it’s the only one doing what it is doing, which is serving the public – which is why it’s still there.”
Not to mention the public fascination for crime, evidenced by the proliferation of police and forensic dramas that surround Crimewatch in the schedules.
“We’re all fascinated by crime, by the worst that human beings are capable of – you can’t shy away from that. To an extent we are confronting our worst fears when we watch it. But I can stick my hand on my heart and say the programme never sensationalises. The point is, it’s an appeals programme – we are trying to elicit information, not titillate.”
Still, with crime rates actually falling steadily over the past 20 years, isn’t there a danger Crimewatch fuels public panic about law and order?
“We’re not trying to alter people’s perception of crimes. We’re not Panorama and we’re not Newsnight,” Young insists. “There are places where statistics can be put in context, but our position is: ‘These things have happened and we need your help.’ It’s police work that solves cases but what we can do is motivate the public to provide a piece of information that helps.”
Which is why, she thinks, it is not altogether inconceivable that Crimewatch will still sit in the television schedule 30 years hence. “I think the person who decides to take Crimewatch off the schedule would be a very foolish person indeed,” she laughs. “But that’s for someone far higher up the food chain than me.”