Baby Reindeer: A Legal Examination of Truth

Baby Reindeer: A Legal Examination of Truth

Baby Reindeer: A Legal Examination of Truth 2400 1350 Sean Cullen

Television binge-watchers and those tuned into popular culture will be familiar with the extraordinary saga that surrounded the release of Netflix’s hit series, ‘Baby Reindeer’. It’s the story of Donny Dunn, a bartender and comedian living in London, and his relationship with a woman called Martha who ultimately stalks him after they meet in the bar he works at. The series prominently presents itself to viewers as a true account of the life and experiences of comedian Richard Gadd – the series’ creator and the actor who portrays Donny.

Upon the series’ April release, traditional and social media exploded with nonstop coverage, with particular attention paid to discovering the identity of the “real” Martha and where she is now. Despite the safeguarding lengths Gadd and Netflix supposedly went to to protect Martha’s real identity, internet sleuths identified a Scottish woman called Fiona Harvey, believing her to be the real-life Martha. After receiving death threats, Harvey came forward and, on Piers Morgan Uncensored, confirmed that the character of Martha was based on her, but asserted that Gadd’s series does not tell the whole, or true, story. Harvey publicly threatened legal action against both Netflix and Richard Gadd for defamation and invasion of privacy, among other claims, and has reportedly hired a New York City-based law firm to represent her. In early June, Harvey filed her claim in California.

Baby Reindeer depicts Martha, stalker of Gadd’s character Donny, engaging in what is determined (within the confines of the series itself) to be the behaviour of a stalker: she waits outside Donny’s home for days on end, sends him thousands of emails, and even physically assaults Donny and a woman he was on a date with. Gadd and an executive at Netflix have both claimed certain details in the show were dramatised to protect the truth of what happened and the private individuals involved, but legal and reputational questions remain about which elements of the show were real and which were exaggerated. How much of the series needs to have remained unchanged for it to be considered a “true story”? Why did the creators choose not to use other options like “based on a true story” or “inspired by true events”, which afford TV and film creators more leeway with the stories they tell? Does the show invade the privacy of those depicted in it? Has the series ruined Harvey’s reputation in the public eye? The biggest question of all, now that Harvey is taking legal action: might she actually have a case?

In the UK, defamation is defined as when something untrue is said which causes or is likely to cause harm to a person’s reputation. Statements that are true are not considered defamation, but substantial evidence supporting their validity must be brought forward. Richard Gadd and Netflix have yet to prove the details in question are true in the legal sense. They have not proven that Harvey was arrested and convicted for stalking, as depicted in the series, while Harvey herself denies having sent the thousands of emails that Martha sends Donny in the series. In early May, a Netflix executive gave evidence before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee and stated that the series was “obviously a true story of the horrific abuse that the writer and protagonist Richard Gadd suffered at the hands of a convicted stalker.” The committee, the media, and the public may easily assume from this statement that every detail in the series is true, but without substantial supporting evidence, the statement is likely defamatory and could potentially be seen as such in a court of law.

Regardless of whether Harvey’s legal case moves forward or proves successful, it will be critical for both Richard Gadd and Netflix to garner support in navigating the PR storm that now surrounds their series – and will likely continue to. With today’s never-ending news cycle across traditional social media platforms, properly assessing risk and managing the relevant parties involved in the press is essential. The question remains for Gadd and Netflix: how they will respond to Fiona Harvey’s claims? The rest of us are left to continue wondering what is true, what is not – and who to believe.