Entertainment

Online sleuths keep trying to solve true crimes. The Baby Reindeer obsession is just the latest

The mini-series is making headlines not just for its popularity but for the wave of online detectives trying to identify some of the more unsettling characters it portrays.

Series' creator asked people not to try to find the real-life 'Martha.' They did it anyway

A man in a suit and a woman in  a green dress smile at each other while sitting on a stage
Richard Gadd, left, and Jessica Gunning appear onstage at Netflix's Baby Reindeer official screening in Los Angeles on May 7. The series, based on Gadd's real-life experience of being stalked, inspired online sleuths to track down 'Martha,' the woman Gunning portrayed. (Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Netflix)

Chances are you've heard of Baby Reindeer, even if you haven't watched it yet.

Netflix's dark and buzzy series spent four weeks as the most popular show on the streaming service globally, and it was also the top show in Canada. The mini-series by Scottish comedian Richard Gadd centres on the main character's harrowing experience of being relentlessly stalked by a woman, which Gadd says is based on his own life.

But the show is making headlines not just for its popularity but for the wave of online detectives trying to identify some of the more unsettling characters it portrays, including Martha, the stalker. Now the supposed real-life "Martha" says she plans to sue, and Gadd has pleaded with fans to stop the sleuthing.

As people dig into the history and personal life of the Scottish lawyer allegedly the inspiration for the Martha character in the show, some experts point out that this is exactly the kind of response we should come to expect given society's obsession with true crime.

People have been armchair sleuths since the first season of the hit podcast Serial aired 10 years ago, and it's one of the reasons the series became such a phenomenon, crime writer and true-crime critic Sarah Weinman told CBC News from New York City.

On the one hand, the idea that you can participate allows people to contend with their frustration or sense of helplessness about the criminal justice system, said Weinman, author of Scoundrel and The Real Lolita.

And true crime provides a sense of community where people — largely women — can bond over their obsession with it, she said.

"The problem is that participatory element kind of puts you in a position that violates a lot of boundaries," Weinman said.

What we're seeing with Baby Reindeer is the blowback to this kind of immersive, interactive product, where people can watch or listen to true-crime content, then engage further, said Michael Arntfield, a criminologist and author at Western University in London, Ont., who's also a former police officer.

"People take on a pseudo-investigative role themselves, looking into tracking these people, looking for alternate theories to the cases, opening up discussion forums or starting their own podcasts to carry on where these other products left off," he said.

LISTEN | How Baby Reindeer launched an online sleuthing nightmare:
\nScottish comedian Richard Gadd’s show Baby Reindeer is being praised for its nuanced exploration of stalking and abuse. However it has unleashed a wave of online detectives rushing to identify the real people who inspired the show’s characters, leading to threats of police action and lawsuits. Ruchira Sharma, host of the podcast Anatomy of a Stalker, says the drive towards online sleuthing in this case shows fans are missing the point.

Fans tracked down 'Martha'

In the case of Baby Reindeer, Gadd tried to conceal the identity of the woman who he said had stalked him. It didn't work.

The series begins as the character of Martha (played by Jessica Gunning) walks into a pub where Donny (played by Gadd) buys her a tea, sparking a "suffocating obsession that threatens to wreck both their lives," according to the Netflix series description.

Martha is described as mentally ill and vulnerable, and she leaves Donny "hundreds of hours of voice messages and north of 40,000 emails." Gadd told GQ he's never revealed the name of his real-life stalker to the media and that he changed some key facts about her for the show.

A man stands behind a bar, looking at a woman laughing while sitting at the bar.
Gadd and Gunning are shown in a scene from Baby Reindeer. Gadd, who is also the series' creator and writer, says he went to 'great lengths' to disguise the real woman's identity. (Ed Miller/Netflix)

Gadd said he "went to such great lengths" to disguise the real woman's true identity that he doubted she would recognize herself. Later, according to Forbes, Gadd pleaded in a now-expired Instagram story for people not to "speculate on who any of the real life people could be. That's not the point of our show."

Last week, Netflix policy chief Benjamin King told a U.K. parliamentary committee that "every reasonable precaution" was taken to disguise "the real-life identities of the people involved in that story" but that "ultimately, it's obviously very difficult to control what viewers do, particularly in a world where everything is amplified by social media."

Viewers eventually tracked "Martha" down, reportedly by looking at the woman's social media history. Last month, the Daily Mail claimed to have interviewed the real-life "Martha" (whom the British newspaper decided not to name), and she claimed she's received death threats and abuse from Gadd's supporters.

"He's using Baby Reindeer to stalk me now," she claimed. "I'm the victim. He's written a bloody show about me."

A few days later, the same reporter who interviewed the woman wrote that he was now being stalked by her.

Then last Thursday, Piers Morgan interviewed Scottish lawyer Fiona Harvey, allegedly the real-life "Martha," and their exchange has been described as "excruciating," "unethical" and "a grotesque bonus feature for morbidly curious Baby Reindeer watchers."

Harvey told Morgan the show is a "work of fiction" and "defamatory" and that she plans to sue Netflix and Gadd.

'What public interest is there in retelling the story?'

Meanwhile, another Scottish lawyer, Laura Wray, alleges she was stalked by Harvey starting in 1997, and she told the Mirror that the newfound attention thanks to Baby Reindeer has triggered her fears all over again.

"My partner and I are concerned about what she might do next. Is she going to come after me?" Wray told the Mirror.

CBC News cannot independently confirm the allegations Wray made against Harvey.

There are so many potential issues with the attention on true-crime content such as Baby Reindeer, Western University's Arntfield said, including interfering with ongoing investigations, revictimizing victims, privacy and defamation.

A man in glasses stands in a  police mug shot
Evan Peters appears as Jeffrey Dahmer in an episode of Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. Some family members of Dahmer's victims said they were blindsided by the series. (Netflix)

For instance, another popular Netflix series, Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, was heavily criticized by some of the family members of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer's victims for not being consulted. That's common for these types of productions, Arntfield said.

"I think that's a discussion that more people need to have, is what public interest is there in retelling the story again?"

Netflix's slate of true-crime content has really opened up the kind of sleuthing response we see with Baby Reindeer, and it's something we should expect to see more of going forward, Ruchira Sharma, host of the podcast Anatomy of a Stalker, recently told CBC's Day 6.

"I think this really is a milestone showing us what the internet will do on anything that is closely based on real life," Sharma said. "This is not an isolated incident. This is more an example of 'more to come,' I think."

Canadian true crimes in the spotlight

Productions about Canadian crimes tend to be heavily scrutinized, since sensational crime is more rare here, Arntfield said.

That's true for two recent productions: a show about B.C. teen Reena Virk and a Netflix documentary about Jennifer Pan's murder-for-hire case.

Hulu's Under the Bridge tells the story of Virk, who was murdered more than 25 years ago. Former Vancouver Sun reporter Neal Hall previously told CBC's Early Edition it's important to remember that the series means Virk's family will "have all the bad memories brought back."

A woman convicted of murder in the case recently told a parole board that the series could traumatize Virk's family and was "disrespectful."

WATCH | The makers behind What Jennifer Did:

‘What Jennifer Did’: A sit-down interview with the makers behind the Netflix documentary

1 month ago
Duration 7:53
A murder-for-hire case in Markham, Ont., is the subject of a new true crime documentary on Netflix. ‘What Jennifer Did” dives into the case of Jennifer Pan, who was convicted in a murder-for-hire plot against her parents. CBC’s Dwight Drummond speaks to two of the documentary’s makers to learn more about the case.

Netflix's documentary What Jennifer Did spent three weeks in the global top 10 for English films. Last month, Karen Ho, a crime writer who went to school with Pan in Toronto, told CBC News that she's uncomfortable with the "true-crime industrial complex" and the "all-consuming and endless" appetite for content about murder.

"I am not watching it, and I'm choosing not to watch it, because I do not want to incentivize the further production of this stuff without at least really thoughtful consideration," Ho said.

A bald man wearing a blue hooded sweater sits in front of a bookshelf.
Michael Arntfield, a criminologist and author at Western University in London, Ont., says some true-crime content is of high quality and offers important lessons, but a lot of it is 'predictable junk food viewing.' (CBC)

While some true-crime content is of high quality and offers important lessons, a lot of it is "predictable junk food viewing," Arntfield said. But he doesn't see the public's interest waning any time soon, calling true crime our society's modern myths.

"Every society in history is defined by stories, and some of the most long-standing myths and legends involve villains," he said.

True crime has been a problematic genre for centuries, echoed crime writer Weinman, adding that the human impulse for curiosity is potent and powerful.

"That's never going to go away."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Natalie Stechyson

Senior writer and editor

Natalie Stechyson is a senior writer and editor at CBC News. She's worked in newsrooms across the country, including the Globe and Mail, Postmedia News, Calgary Herald and Brunswick News. Before joining CBC News, she was the Parents editor at HuffPost Canada, where she won a silver Canadian Online Publishing Award.