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6 May 2020

As TV shows from Quiz to Tiger King speculate on real crimes, we are all in a constant state of jury duty

How a slew of dramas and documentaries encouraged amateur sleuths to convict people for the crime of being slightly odd.

By Amelia Tait

On 16 April 2020, exactly 17 years and nine days after he was found guilty of cheating on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? at Southwark Crown Court, the British nation exonerated the “coughing major” Charles Ingram. For the better part of two decades, we have all collectively believed that Ingram not-quite-masterminded a not-so-elaborate plan to get an accomplice to cough whenever he said the correct answer while considering his options in the Millionaire hot seat. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say the story is part of our national psyche. The fraud occurred the day before the 9/11 attacks in 2001, and somehow it still managed to dominate Noughties newsstands. Yet in mid-April, the ITV drama Quiz went and spoilt it all by saying something stupid like, “Erm, maybe he didn’t do it?”

I am terrified by the nation’s response to Quiz, a three-part dramatisation of the scandal that aired over three consecutive nights on 13-15 April to an average of more than five million viewers. After the third instalment, in which Ingram’s guilt was called into question, Twitter was flooded with the words “Ingram” and “innocent”, with the coughing major himself retweeting claims that he was “stitched up” and is now “totally exonerated”. This response scares me, not because I think Charles Ingram is guilty, but because I honestly have no idea.

Many of us, I’m sure, believe we have the special ability to “read people” – a pseudo-magic power that enables us to sense guilt and innocence and everything in between. Yet it’s one thing to believe, deep down, that you know whodunnit, and another to say so. A few weeks ago I stumbled across an online post about The Staircase, a 2018 Netflix documentary following the trial of a man accused of murdering his wife. The post, entitled “How in God’s name did he pull it off..?!” made me laugh with alarm.

“If he really killed his wife, then how on God’s green earth could he have organised such a thorough clean-up? […] He just couldn’t have done it,” the poster began. “But he screams guilt from the first line that comes out of his mouth to the last pompous quote from Romeo & Juliet,” they add, concluding: “He just must have done it.” In other words, “There is no evidence at the crime scene that this man killed this wife, but I find him very strange, so he is guilty.”

We are now all in a constant state of jury duty, as TV dramas and documentaries invite us to speculate on real crimes from the comfort of our homes. Shortly before Quiz captured our attention, a seven-part documentary called Tiger King became Netflix’s most-watched title for the longest period of time (over 34 million people watched in the US over ten days alone). Although the show was ostensibly about the abuse of exotic animals, viewers instead focused on Carole Baskin, an animal activist whose millionaire husband disappeared in 1997. No law enforcement agency has ever accused Baskin of murdering her husband, but thanks to speculative interviews in Tiger King, millions of people across the globe are now certain she chopped up her husband and fed him to her big cats.

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Carole Baskin is – to put it very, very mildly – a bit odd. So too is Charles Ingram, and so is Michael Peterson, the man at the centre of The Staircase documentary. Reader: I am a bit odd, and I am horrified that my freakazoid credentials could ever be used against me in the court of public opinion. As someone who enjoys doing extra research after watching true crime telly, I’ve read far too many posts from amateur sleuths who think people reacted “wrongly” to the deaths of loved ones, or stressed the “wrong” syllable, and therefore – case closed – are guilty.

As I am someone-who-enjoys-doing-extra-research, it might not surprise you to hear I read Bob Woffinden and James Plaskett’s 2015 book Bad Show: The Quiz, The Cough, The Millionaire Major after watching Quiz. One passage stuck out, in which Ingram’s wife Diana is asked to explain to the court why she made five phone calls in an unusual manner one night – one from her landline at 6.03pm, one from her mum’s mobile at 6.04pm, then back to her landline, back to her mum’s mobile, and back to her landline again. “Well, no, not really,” Diana Ingram replied when asked if she could explain why she did this. “I just did.”

If I’m unnerved by the public’s response to true crime, I am equally unnerved by a justice system based on the idea that the things we do make logical sense. I couldn’t explain anything I do to anyone – I have no justification for the nonsensical actions that make up my decisions. “Miss Tait,” I can imagine a lawyer asking, “How can you expect us to believe that you spent the nights of both 17 and 19 April baking two entirely separate batches of cookies? Did the first batch not result in 20 cookies? I put it to the jury: who needs 40 cookies in the span of two days?”

I can’t quite believe that two decades ago members of the public spat at a man and shot at his cat because they were so certain he was guilty of being a cheat, and now others tweet that he is an innocent victim. It’s wild that a TV show (complete with a musical number) made us think Ingram is innocent, but Bad Show documents how a TV show first cemented his guilt. In May 2003, Tonight With Trevor McDonald – Major Fraud was broadcast to the nation – the authors of Bad Show write that it “undoubtedly had a corrosive impact on the public’s perception of these events”. Ingram said that before the show, people still came up to him and said of his court case, “I can’t believe you lost”. But afterwards, the mood changed. 

I now feel there was a miscarriage of justice in Ingram’s case, but Quiz and Bad Show have left me absolutely certain of only one thing: my horror at the mere idea of the nation trying to work out whether or not I am guilty of something.

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This article appears in the 06 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Remaking Britain