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Baby Reindeer anonymity debacle to spark industry reckoning

After internet sleuths quickly discovered the alleged inspiration behind Baby Reindeer’s ‘Martha’, the British government announced stricter anonymity measures are to be implemented for Netflix.

Could Baby Reindeer spell the beginning of the end for ‘true story’ dramas?

If you’ve yet to see the hit Netflix show, you’ll no doubt have heard about it in some capacity from friends, social media, or the tabloids.

The fan fare surrounding the dramatized biopic of comedian Richard Gadd (who plays Donny) is still raging over a month after its April release. While the show certainly deserves its critical acclaim, the nature of the continued public interest has shifted to something unsavoury.

The limited series, which begins with the message ‘This is a true story’, handles sensitive themes like sexual assault, deep personal trauma, and stalking. Over the course of around three years, Gadd portrays how his experience in dealing with a serial stalker forced him to confront repressed memories and feelings from his past.

The vast majority of the show deals with encounters between Donny and Martha, a self-described ex-lawyer with a history of obsessive infatuations and run-ins with the authorities.

After a chance encounter with Donny at a pub in Cadmen, events continually spiral. The script suggests that Martha sent more than 41,000 emails, 744 tweets, 100 letters, and 350 hours of voicemails to Donny. In the later episodes, she also attacks his partner and harasses his parents in Scotland.

Naturally, given Gadd is playing himself, coupled with the preface that Baby Reindeer is a ‘true story’, a level of curiosity is stoked about the real people behind the other characters. The public hunt for the real Martha, however, has gone way overboard since the show’s debut.

Upon realising that Baby Reindeer wasn’t going to be a niche artistic gem, but a rip-roaring mainstream success, Gadd quickly implored people not to search for the true identities of the show’s characters. That request, unsurprisingly, fell on deaf ears.

Within a matter of days, Twitter (X) users had found the account allegedly owned by ‘Martha’ – which we will not link for obvious reasons – and hundreds of TikTok videos sent influxes of viewers to her page. It currently has around north of 20,000 followers.

In an attempt to clear her name, a woman named Fiona Harvey appeared on Piers Morgan’s YouTube channel claiming to be the inspiration for Martha, but disputed much of the show’s events. She claims her encounters with Gadd were few and far between and reveals she has been targeted by fans of the show in phonecalls and abusive messages.

Since the interview, which was handled in a very accusatory manner, Harvey has publicly stated that she feels ‘used’ by Piers. There has also been no revelations regarding her on-screen stalking conviction against Gadd, prompting Scottish National Party MP John Nicolson to call for a review of Netflix’s evidence presented at the Culture Media and Sport Committee.

The whole situation remains very messy, and it appears that Netflix’s attempts to fulfil its ‘duty of care’ weren’t nearly careful enough.

Appearing on The Media Show, Chris Banatvala, former head of standards at Ofcom, questioned Netflix’s idea of due diligence – highlighting that ‘potentially vulnerable people’ were involved and this is an obviously sensitive case.

Concurring, Doctor Who writer, Russel T Davies, said that the BBC’s editorial compliance processes would have been ‘much stricter’ in a Times article. ‘Compliance and editorial policy drives us mad here but I sleep at night,’ he wrote.

Netflix executive Benjamin King asserts ‘every reasonable precaution in disguising the real-life identities of the people involved in that story’ were taken, despite all signs currently pointing to the contrary.

Given a resolution isn’t in the offing, the British government is understandably unsatisfied with this stance. In-fact, it appears as though Baby Reindeer may provide a watershed moment for anonymity and duty of care reform in the streaming space.

Ofcom, who are the seniors of the previously mentioned Culture Media and Sports Committee, are reportedly in the process of enforcing a new Video-on Demand Code because of the ongoing controversy.

This legislation, which is due to be live by 2025, will allow the subjects of a show billed as a ‘true story’ to contest the legitimacy of on-screen events. Under its rules of providing safety, Fiona Harvey would theoretically be able to make a fairness and privacy complaint against Netflix, having been quickly identified online.

Streaming services, particularly Netflix, can’t get enough of ‘true life’ content, but these added stipulations may prompt companies to think twice about commissioning and rolling out shows without conducting the necessary preparations.

In that sense, Baby Reindeer may have just ignited an industry-wide reckoning.