Piers Morgan won’t care where the Baby Reindeer saga goes. But Netflix should | Marina Hyde

What will happen next in the still-mushrooming Baby Reindeer saga? Probably one or more of a number of bad things. Latest bad thing to happen (at time of writing) was Piers Morgan’s decision to pay the so-called real-life Martha – reportedly the inspiration for the stalker character in the Netflix programme – what she claims was £250 so he could interview her on his YouTube show. I always feel the most disingenuous gambit in journalism is the one that goes: “We just want to give you the chance to tell your side of the story …” Anyway, the resultant encounter dropped on Thursday night and was an object lesson in wild-west TV, which has already sparked condemnation from a number of angles. Let’s hope it doesn’t spark real-life events of its own.

Clearly mindful of the criticisms that would be levelled at him for featuring someone UK news outlets had largely avoided even naming, Morgan approached his interviewee wearing a veneer of empathy. Ultimately, though, the Martha character’s enterprise would surely seem low-grade to all the people who edited tabloid newspapers in the not-too-distant past. After all, if you want someone relentlessly pursued, you just get the news desk to do it. Or a private detective. Or – but no. We daren’t all operate under the heroic “uncensored” banner.

For now, a quick refresher. Baby Reindeer is the Netflix show written by and starring Richard Gadd, and a massive and critically acclaimed hit for the streamer. It tells Gadd’s story of being stalked, as well as his abuse at the hands of an exploitative TV figure, and is prefaced with the words: “This is a true story”. Not “based on a true story”, or “inspired by real events”, or all the other get-outs / get-ins that have made “based-on” crime an intellectual property genre all of its own, with Netflix particularly drawn to the tag.

Within a sensationally short time of the show dropping, “Martha” had been identified from her own previous posts, while the TV figure plotline turned into one of those super-fun rapist guessing games, with some men wrongly identified and forced to call the police. Within the TV industry, particularly the five former analogue channels, jaws were dropping. This was surely a mega compliance failure?

In a list of telly’s unsung heroes, broadcasters’ compliance departments would be right up there, ensuring that shows conform to standards and codes, for instance when they involve vulnerable or “real-life” people. When the Baby Reindeer controversy first kicked off, I joked to someone that I pictured the Netflix compliance department as just a single phone ringing out in a cupboard. I would like to expand on that comment by saying I’m pretty sure the compliance department at Piers Morgan Uncensored is a single 4ft-square tickbox on a wall beneath the slogan “WILL IT GET ME CLICKS?”

But I guess that’s YouTube for you. And I have sympathy for channels and streamers creating shows in a world where social media platforms evidently couldn’t care less about ethics. However, this is the world we currently live in, and into which they knowingly put their shows, so more realism is urgently overdue from certain purveyors of real-life stories. You can find plenty who believe that “Martha” now receiving death threats and having people on her own doorstep is a form of just deserts. But ceding control of justice to the TikTok or X algorithm was grim in the Nicola Bulley case and others, and it’s grim now.

So yes, without wishing to spaff Netflix’s billions for them, I think that if you paid your co-chief executive $49.8m last year, you can probably afford a half-arsed compliance department. The BBC pays the director-general, Tim Davie, £527,000 a year, and has a belt-and-braces compliance department. As Russell T Davies – who knows one or two things about writing drama based on real events – said this week, the BBC would have been “much stricter” about compliance in Baby Reindeer than Netflix. “Compliance and editorial policy drives us mad here,” he reflected, “but I sleep at night.”

I’m guessing Netflix executives responsible for Baby Reindeer sleep the sleep of people who have just delivered a record-breaking international hit for a streamer that probably couldn’t give a toss about this sort of local handwringing. This isn’t the line the Netflix public policy director floated in front of a select committee on Wednesday, of course, with Benjamin King telling MPs that Netflix and the production company, Clerkenwell Films, had taken “every reasonable precaution in disguising the real-life identities of the people involved in that story”. Er … no. Admittedly, it was particularly tricky in the case of this material, with Gadd having addressed it in pre-existent Edinburgh fringe shows where the identification risks are obviously infinitely smaller than they are with a Netflix hit. But when the BBC made I May Destroy You with HBO and the production company Various Artists, I’m told meticulous care was taken to support Michaela Coel in telling the story of her sexual assault and her attempts to process it. There were independent lawyers, there was extensive pastoral support, and the defining characteristics of the real people were unidentifiably different. Did Netflix do this? Evidently not all of it.

Strange, all things considered, that the government has spent much of the past few years honking that everything from the BBC to Channel 4 to the NHS should be “more like Netflix”. Meanwhile, if Baby Reindeer had been a BBC show, the resultant furore would have been framed vastly differently. Davie would have been forced to resign at least a week ago – his demise having been bayed for by many of the papers now cheerily covering the identification fallout. None of those news outlets would ever even dream of calling for Netflix’s Ted Sarandos to resign, of course. No, these big fish much prefer the feeding frenzy of the small pond. True story.


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