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10 May 2024

The Baby Reindeer media circus

It is a shame that Piers Morgan has stooped to interviewing the individual who allegedly inspired the series. But the British public still tunes in.

By Finn McRedmond

On 8 May Benjamin King, head of policy for Netflix UK, defended the streamer’s hit programme Baby Reindeer in front of a parliamentary select committee. Baby Reindeer – based on a true story, as the opening credits note – follows a depressed barman, Richard Gadd (who plays himself), and the increasingly deranged activity of his stalker Martha. It did not take long for a cadre of amateur sleuths to identify the (alleged!) real-life inspiration for Martha: a Scottish woman called Fiona Harvey.

As Harvey was catapulted into mainstream consciousness (Baby Reindeer will be among Netflix’s most popular series ever) the tension became obvious: had Netflix failed in its duty of care to protect the identity of a seemingly vulnerable woman? Ought it not have taken better precaution to distance the art from the muse? King was defensive: “We didn’t want to anonymise that or make it generic to the point where it was no longer his story, because that would undermine the intent behind the show,” King said. “I personally wouldn’t be comfortable with a world in which we decided it was better that Richard was silenced and not allowed to tell the story.”

Now Netflix can thank Piers Morgan for chucking another log on the fire. Last night Morgan interviewed Harvey on his YouTube show Uncensored (which has 2.7 million subscribers). The whole world had heard Gadd’s version of events – obsessive stalking, an assault, a criminal conviction – so now it was time for Harvey’s right of reply, Morgan contended. In the hour-long conversation Harvey was defiant and, at times, rather hard to believe. Did she send 41,000 emails to Gadd? “Absolutely not,” she said. “I don’t think I sent him anything.” Or, maybe she did. Erm, perhaps a handful?

The “right of reply” argument is moot. Baby Reindeer is fiction, and so it has no obligation to be a faithful rendition of reality. It does not need to offer its characters a fair hearing. It speaks to a cosmic failure on the audience’s part to make such demands of art, or to think the source material is the most interesting thing about Baby Reindeer. I am reminded of the endless quest to find out who is really depicted in the Mona Lisa. (A merchant’s wife? Da Vinci’s lover? Who cares!) It’s a shallow means of engaging with a work. Harvey is not the most interesting thing about Baby Reindeer – an interview with her adds nothing to the conversations the series raises. And that’s before we consider the question of whether Harvey is being exploited by such media attention.

But the lure for Piers Morgan is obvious. Baby Reindeer is one of the most popular shows on television, and – though the cast have argued that amateur sleuths who identified Harvey have “missed the point” of the series – many viewers are keen to know the grim details of the real-life story that inspired it.

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This blurring of the private and public realm mimics the circus cruelty of Noughties television: the exploitation of the working class on The Jeremy Kyle Show; the ritual humiliation of maladjusted contestants on The X Factor; the voyeurism of Big Brother; the aesthetic and moral squalor of the sketch show Little Britain. This mode of entertainment – prying, callous – is in the DNA of Britain.

Morgan, a former tabloid editor whose television career began in the Noughties, sits at the heart of that culture. But he is also one of the most skilled interviewers in the British media – and this particular cynical publicity stunt is a waste of his talents. It is also unworthy of our attention, though that hasn’t stopped us tuning in. In less than 24 hours, Morgan’s interview with Harvey has been watched 4.5 million times.

[See also: The internet has ruined true stories]

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