The Memo: Netflix's Baby Reindeer and the case for defamation

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Netflix's Baby Reindeer and the case for defamation

Tyler Rigby - 20 May 2024

Chances are, you’ve heard of Baby Reindeer. The runaway Netflix sensation is a certified hit for the streamer centring around one man’s ordeal with a middle-aged stalker that takes some especially dark turns. At least some of the success of the show is due in part to its claims of being a true story, chronicling star and creator Richard Gadd’s own experience with trauma and abuse. The usual precautions were taken when it comes to an adaptation of real events like this; places were changes, scenarios embellished, and the names of individuals were switched out to protect the identity of those involved. Unfortunately, in today’s online age, that was not enough.  

The real life ‘Martha,’ Gadd’s stalker who, according to the show, sent Gadd 41,000 emails and harassed both his parents and his partner at the time, was tracked down by legions of internet detectives and has now been exposed to the world. Fiona Harvey, the inspiration for Martha, has claimed that Gadd defamed her and lied about everything, which has led to her being harassed online in her own right. So, Harvey has claimed that she plans to seek legal action against Gadd and Netflix for defamation and failing to protect her identity.  

There has been debate that the ‘true story’ disclaimer at the front end of every episode is insufficient and misleading as it implies that all scenes from the show perfectly match the facts. Of course, such disclaimers have been the subject of discussion around media for a while, with The Crown coming under scrutiny for a similar reason with critics claiming it needed a similar disclaimer as the monarchy was supposedly being misrepresented on the popular drama. Famously, acclaimed directors the Coen brothers poked fun at this craze as far back as the 1990s with the release of Fargo which claimed to be a ‘true story’ even though the events were entirely fictitious and made up.  

An alteration of the disclaimer wouldn’t make much of a difference for Harvey’s case, and with Gadd claiming that all the emails used in the show are legitimate, Harvey would have to prove that they are not. Gadd is also protected by creative licence to tell the story he wishes to tell. In times past, the changing of someone’s name or the location of where they were would have been enough to adequately disguise someone’s identity but, in an increasingly digital world, that may no longer be enough.