Baby Reindeer: fans will always go sleuthing so real people must be better protected

Martha’s character is well constructed by Gadd and Gunning’s portrayal is mesmerising to watch
Martha’s character is well constructed by Gadd and Gunning’s portrayal is mesmerising to watch (Ed Miller/Netflix/Ed Miller/Netflix)

Baby Reindeer, the autobiographical Netflix series about one comedian’s experience of stalking, has consistently been in the streamer’s top ten most-watched since its release. The story follows barman-cum-comedian Donny, played by Richard Gadd whose real-life experiences inform the show, as an encounter with a woman changes his life.

When Martha comes into his pub visibly upset and unable to afford anything, Donny offers her a cup of tea. We see that act of kindness turn into a years-long obsession as Martha stalks Donny, his parents and his girlfriend.

Critics have praised the series calling it a “a devastating examination of trauma and abuse”. The story is harrowing and its “based on true events” credentials spurred fans – despite Gadd saying he was against it – to search out the real Martha.

Coming forward in an interview with Piers Morgan, the woman who allegedly inspired Gadd has spoken out about receiving death threats. Fiona Harvey, 58, described Baby Reindeer as a “work of fiction” and “hyperbole”.

Gadd has made it clear that he doesn’t want audiences to discover the real-life identities of any of the characters. Posting on social media he said: “People I love, have worked with, and admire (including Sean Foley) are unfairly getting caught up in speculation. Please don’t speculate on who the real-life people could be. That’s not the point of our show.”

Years of researching true crime suggests to me, however, that audiences are going to investigate regardless of the wishes of creators or the potential effects these investigations might have on the people they identify. And the companies behind these creations have a duty of care to those implicated.

Audiences have been encouraged to dig into fictional narratives for years as many producers encourage “seeking out clues, charting patterns and assembling evidence into narrative hypotheses and theories”. Media scholar Jason Mittell calls this “forensic fandom” and I have argued that nowhere is this descriptor more appropriate than in true crime.

When the first season of the podcast Serial ended with no satisfactory answer as to who killed Hae Min Lee, fans took to social media to work it out themselves. Perhaps most infamously, following the 2013 Boston marathon bombing Reddit users incorrectly identified student Sunil Tripathi, who had committed suicide prior to the bombing, as the attacker.

Of course, these are all instances of true crime rather than a dramatisation based on a true story, but questions remain about the ethics of forensic fandom and stories like Baby Reindeer. There are particular ethical implications concerning cases which happen in real time or where innocent parties are accused.

But in the case of Baby Reindeer and other dramatisations, attention should perhaps be turned towards the duty of care that streamers and broadcasters (should) have towards the real people involved, rather than the audience.

As film scholar Daniel O’Brien points out: “Netflix has long been part of a detective-armchair genre, prompting viewers to Google details from questionable figures in the limelight, including Joe Exotic in Tiger King (2020-21) or Steven Avery in Making a Murderer (2015-18).”

Stating in bold type in the trailer and at the beginning of episode one that the series is based on a true story is bound to whet the audience’s appetite and increase speculation. Concern about this web sleuthing led to Netflix’s policy chief, Benjamin King, being questioned over the streamer’s duty of care by British MPs. While King stated that the streamer “did take every reasonable precaution in disguising the real life identities of the people” that clearly was not enough.

Despite Gadd suggesting that they had “gone to such great lengths” to disguise the real life “Martha”, key attributes are shared by Harvey and Martha. They are both Scottish, former lawyers and they share physical similarities.

Viewers were also able to identify the real Martha with X (formerly Twitter) after finding tweets from Harvey to Gadd. Some of the posts that Harvey had sent to Gadd were repeated, almost verbatim, in the dialogue and messages that featured in episodes. This made it easy for viewers to search for key terms on social media sites and judge by the writing style that Harvey and Martha were one and the same.

Martha is coming to the bar daily and sitting through Donny’s shifts and giving him the pet name “Baby Reindeer” because of his big eyes and “cute wee tush”
Martha is coming to the bar daily and sitting through Donny’s shifts and giving him the pet name “Baby Reindeer” because of his big eyes and “cute wee tush” (Ed Miller/Netflix/Ed Miller/Netflix)

In Harvey’s interview with Piers Morgan, which is being widely criticised as exploitative, she admitted to initially meeting Gadd in a pub but had subsequently met him only a few times. She acknowledged sending him a handful of emails but said she had never stalked or been convicted of stalking him. She also stated that she had received death threats, and was now considering suing Gadd and Netflix.

King, in his appearance in front of MPs, made clear that Baby Reindeer was “fundamentally about Richard’s story and telling Richard’s story in a truthful way”. He argued that “ultimately, it’s obviously very difficult to control what viewers do, particularly in a world where everything is amplified by social media”.

But when streamers and broadcasters are unable to control their audience’s actions shouldn’t we ask for more demands to be placed on them when telling stories based on real life events? Especially when those stories have wide-reaching consequences for those who might be dealing with mental health issues, issues surrounding gender or sexuality, or other vulnerabilities? The ethical issues that arise in true crime, or true crime adjacent, storytelling can’t fall simply on audiences alone.