The ethics of true crime in television

The ethics of true crime in television

By Caroline Frost,
Monday, 18th December 2023
From left: Nazir Afzal, Diana Carter, Will Hanrahan and Clare Hoban (Credit: John Stone)
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
LinkedIn icon
e-mail icon

How should producers navigate turning horrifying events into compelling TV while respecting victims and their families?

The Christmas before last, you might have expected the most streamed programme in the UK to be The Holiday or Elf. In fact, it was My Lover My Killer, the Netflix series exploring the cases of murder victims who meet tragic ends after relationships turn deadly. It’s not typical festive fare, but testament to the mushrooming market for true crime, via TV – both factual and drama – as well as podcasts and, increasingly, TikTok.

Typing “true crime doc” into any streamer’s search bar offers up dozens of titles, many of them variations on a similar theme of love gone fatally wrong. Shows such as Till Murder Do Us Part and Meet Marry Murder all do what they promise on the tin.

At a sold-out RTS London event last month, “The ethics of true crime”, panellists debated how producers, broadcasters and platforms can establish good practice while still telling compelling stories that audiences want to watch.   

Diana Carter, Commissioning Editor and Head of Talent at A+E Networks UK, is convinced that lockdown played a part in increasing the popularity of such fare: “All we did was [watch TV] and queue up at Tesco,” she told the RTS. “With that explosion of consump­tion, true crime was one of the fastest growing sub-genres in the documentary space.”

Will Hanrahan, Creative Director of First Look TV which makes My Lover My Killer, was clearly proud of creating such a hit, but said there were ethical questions to be asked ahead of making any type of show that relies on stories featuring perpetrators, victims, and families: “Are we doing it for the money? Are we doing it for public purpose? In what small way are we trying to make the world a better place?

“Our criteria are always those, and if we don’t think we can, we walk away from it… No matter that the commercial realities of our industry are that we chase ratings and headlines in the papers, it’s fundamental that we have social purpose.”

Leading television lawyer Clare Hoban has for more than 20 years been clearing both drama and factual content for broadcast. She listed the three main legal considerations which every show, whether documentary or drama, must navigate:

  • Contempt of court: the potential for prejudicing a trial;
  • Defamation: avoiding criticism of a figure on screen that can’t be justified;
  • Privacy: calculating whether the public interest trumps someone’s right to privacy.

Ofcom has assembled a 60-page document to guide producers in navigating these questions, with provisions relating to everything from fairness to secret filming, to undue prominence and contacting families of victims.

Hoban explained: “When you’re legaling a programme, we have one of the most complicated media legal and regulatory landscapes in the world. If a programme is compliant to UK-level standards, it puts you in a legally watertight position, but it also means that there’s a lot to think about when you’re making a programme.”

Besides the plethora of factual content, expensive dramatic adaptations are no less popular, varying from the high production values of the recent BBC TV series, The Sixth Commandment (telling the story of Ben Field who murdered Peter Farquhar and exploited Ann Moore-Martin) to the more showy Vanishing Act, a caperish telling of Australian con artist Melissa Caddick, who ran a Ponzi scheme before her disappearance in 2020. 

Of course, star-driven true crime stories such as Steve Coogan playing Jimmy Savile or Colin Firth as Michael Peterson, a novelist convicted, later acquitted, of killing his wife in HBO’s hit drama The Staircase, based on a previous award-winning Storyville documentary, raise the stakes still further.

One audience member admitted that, in watching the dramatised version of The Staircase, she had decided the lead character must be innocent “because he was played by Colin Firth”. She raised an important point: “When is something factual and when does it warrant becoming a piece of scripted?”

For Hanrahan, it’s about answering a collective audience need: “When the nation is united in horror at a particular crime and that later becomes a drama, I believe the drama tends to have the biggest impact. If the drama is scripted with sensitivities, which are crucial to us all, it’s very important to be able to tell that story.”

He added that the success of true-crime drama has influenced how his team goes about creating factual content: “When I’m dealing with producers now, I’ll say, ‘Where is the drama in the story?’ Because you have to match that level of suspense, which means people won’t turn off. Otherwise, people won’t stay with you, especially with the streamers. So, we have to work out how we tell a compelling story and we are borrowing from drama all the time.”

Factual content, Hoban said, is at its best when it asks, “not just what happened but why”. Carter added: “We don’t need to add a level of salaciousness to true-crime content, because those stories are lurid and unfathomable enough.”

Moderator Nazir Afzal, who, as a former Chief Crown Prosecutor led the case against the defendants in the Rochdale child sex abuse ring, saw himself portrayed on screen in the drama Three Girls – the BBC’s dramatisation of the investigation and court case.

He reminded the audience that the BBC commissioned a documentary to air alongside the drama: “They did both. I think that was the right approach, given the nature of the case.”

Hanrahan, whose production team is 90% female, explained this corresponded with research he had commissioned into audience demographics: “We do tend to prefer the female gaze when we come to telling our stories and true crime, because it’s mostly women who watch.

“It’s females who watch true crime. I don’t understand that.”

Carter suggested: “Women predominantly watch for the ‘why’, while men also watch for the ‘how’. But I think women will gravitate more to the psychology.”

Besides TV shows, all the panellists have seen their work shift towards making podcasts and, in Carter’s case, expanding into the world of TikTok, where many amateur online sleuths have taken up residence.

“We must jump aboard that ship and try,” she said. “It has a totally different narrative tone to it. But we’re regulating it, making sure it’s fed through the same filters, checks and ethical standards as long-form content would be. You can’t ignore the fact that this is an ever-growing field – we should embrace it and try to regulate it in a similar fashion.”

For Hanrahan, too, regulation on these relatively new platforms is key: “With podcasts, I get nervous because podcasts trivialise and use crime as entertainment sometimes. I am convinced we need to regulate.”

An audience member asked if, with all the true crime that audiences are now exposed to, the industry is to blame for the increase in misogyny we’re seeing in society.

Hanrahan called this “a very fair, valid question”, but Afzal said of victims, “They’re more likely to see it in their own homes than they are to see it on TV. We’ve hidden from the truth. We’ve had police operatives who wouldn’t get involved with a domestic because it’s a domestic. We need to  shine a light on it.”

Report by Caroline Frost. ‘The Ethics of True Crime’ was an RTS London event held at the Everyman King’s Cross, London N1 on 21 November. The producers were Phoebe Brown, Xander Ross, and Damien Ashton-Wellman.