Could the accusations and fallout surrounding ‘Baby Reindeer’ lead to a landmark legal case that tackles the growing number of online, armchair detectives?

The rising number of true crime documentaries, podcasts and TV dramas ‘based on a true story’ have captured the public’s imagination, allowing anyone with an internet connection to become an amateur detective. Too often, individuals forget that there are real people behind the accusations they make online, as well as potentially serious consequences for their actions.

What happens when comments on social media go beyond the digital world?

For years the internet has been treated by its users like the Wild West, where they believed anything could be published with few real-world repercussions. Since the Netflix show ‘Baby Reindeer’ gained popularity, social media users have taken it upon themselves to share/comment on the very real case with little thought to any repercussions that may result from doing so.

With the real person behind the character of ‘Martha’ stating they are considering legal action; it might not just be the show’s writer or Netflix in the firing line. Content creators, influencers and ordinary members of the public could also be at risk by repeating what could be deemed ‘defamatory’ claims to their online followers.

Armchair detectives should carefully consider the ramifications of trying to track down the real people behind a story. If producers have taken measures to anonymise characters, for example by changing their name, it should serve as a deterrent. If individuals choose to forge ahead and repeat or spread claims that could be they could quickly find themselves at the wrong end of a lawsuit.

Publishing online accusations and comments about people could also easily cross the line to become distressing and oppressive, leaving the subjects of those posts with claims to restrain online harassment.

It’s not just those with larger followings who should think twice before posting. Individuals who engage with content created by others could also be putting themselves at risk, as republishing content, whether that’s a blog or a social media post, perpetuates the claim and carries the same legal liability.

What checks do ‘true’ stories have to go through before being published?

It’s imperative that television creators are aware of the risk before entering into agreements with production companies. Richard Gadd had previously been telling his story as a stage show for several years without scrutiny. However, with the wider audience brought by television, a loss of control occurred, leading to a frenzied witch hunt that has damaged real reputations in the process.

When considering publishing a ‘true’ account or story, it’s vital to weigh up the risk versus reward. While true stories capture the public imagination and often gain enormous critical acclaim and commercial success – inaccuracies, exaggerations or creative licence can open up scope for legal action.

In this case, the show did not do enough to disguise Martha’s real identity. Much of the information given in the show was publicly available on her social media pages, and the creators went as far as to hire an actress who resembles her likeness.

While the creators may have honestly believed a name change would be adequate, in today’s online culture, this was misguided at best. At worst it has defamed and publicly shamed a woman with potentially inaccurate, dramatised information.

If you have been named and shamed, what steps can you take to clear your name?

Clearing your name after a witch hunt can be difficult, as once allegations are out there, they remain there forever. Defamation cases help to establish the facts, protect and recover an individual’s reputation and provide a method to regain control of their lives after their privacy has been invaded.

For those who receive death threats or who are harassed on or offline as the result of these claims, as in the case of Sean Foley who was misidentified as an abuser as a result of the show, it may be possible to get an injunction that prevents people from spreading the claims further.

While Richard Gadd quickly put out an online statement stating that Sean Foley was not the man in question, this has done little to stop the wildfire of accusations and harassment stemming from this extreme case of misidentification.

What does ‘Baby Reindeer’ teach us?

It is evident that the proliferation of online content and the ease of sharing information come with significant legal implications. The discussions around ‘Baby Reindeer’ highlight the need for individuals to exercise caution when making accusations or sharing potentially defamatory content online. It also underscores the responsibility of content creators and producers to ensure that their productions do not inadvertently harm real individuals.

Ultimately, ‘Baby Reindeer’ serves as a cautionary tale about the power and pitfalls of the digital age, highlighting the need for greater awareness and accountability in online interactions and content sharing.

We will continue to monitor the story and provide an update as it progresses.

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Daniel is a highly regarded experienced specialist commercial litigator and defamation expert

Daniel has acted in a variety of claims dealing with specialist defamation and privacy matters such as Al-Ko Kober Ltd & Anor v Sambhi [2017] EWHC 2474 (QB), obtaining creative and unusual solutions for clients.

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Published: 17th May 2024
Area: Litigation & Dispute Resolution

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