Released in April 2024, Richard Gadd’s Baby Reindeer is on the path to becoming one of Netflix’s most popular shows of all time.

The title of the show is not inspired by a menu item from Lapland, but rather what Richard’s real-life stalker used to call him. Indeed, Baby Reindeer is a ‘true story’ of Richard’s life in which he describes in brave honesty how he was the stalking victim of a woman and the victim of sexual abuse from a TV producer.

Interestingly, the first words on the screen after the cold open are “This is a true story.” Works based on true stories are extremely popular and have become a sort of genre of their own. Netflix has tried to corner the market with shows like Inventing Anna, which was based on the Anna Delvey fraud case. What is different with Baby Reindeer, however, is that it did not state that it was ‘based’ on a true story, but it is one. This has created controversy, as certain characters’ true identities were not concealed as well as they could have been, which poses ethical issues.

In the era of social media and internet sleuths, does Netflix need to take more care when it comes to true stories?

Baby Reindeer and the importance of true stories in TV

Richard, like many other victims of sexual abuse, found it difficult to speak up. Indeed, throughout the series, Richard shows how he suffered in silence from his abuse. Only at the end, does he manage to tell people what happened to him. Richard presenting Baby Reindeer as a ‘true story’ shows great courage, but it is also especially important in encouraging those in silence to speak up. Gadd’s story reminds watchers that the truth, however agonising, will be freeing.

The British male sexual abuse charity We Are Survivors, of which Richard is an ambassador, saw a growth of 80% in calls after Baby Reindeer aired. In the two weeks after it was released, 53% of referrals stated that Baby Reindeer was their motivation for calling. The charity has since said that it previously worked with scriptwriters from shows like EastEnders and Coronation Street to shine a light on male sexual abuse on screen. However, the charity never witnessed a response quite as big as the one following Baby Reindeer. Victims of abuse came to the charity with lines from the show on scraps of paper that they felt spoke to them.

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Richard Gadd told Variety that Baby Reindeer was “emotionally 100% a true story”. A significant difference between shows like EastEnders and Baby Reindeer and their impact on sexual abuse victims is the fact that, in Richard’s case, Baby Reindeer is a truly emotional story.

The true emotions of a victim shared on screen have the power to resonate with other real-life victims more than the emotions of a fictional victim. Gadd’s character portrays very well the ‘grey areas’ of abuse. This is important for all survivors, particularly with Richard sharing how he repeatedly came back to his abuser. Sexual abuse victims will often internally blame themselves, and victim blaming can be damaging both to victims and society in general. Ultimately, it can be a strong inhibitor to someone speaking up about their abuse.

The problems with true stories in 2024

Despite the positive impacts of Baby Reindeer, when other people’s stories are involved, the waters are harder to navigate. Truth is subjective, but in the age of social media, no one’s true identity is hidden, and Baby Reindeer did not take enough care to conceal the identity of the real-life people its characters were based on.

The real person behind the show’s stalker character Martha was extremely easy to find for internet sleuths. Martha was remarkably similar to the real person; Fiona Harvey, and it only took searching a few phrases from the show before she was found. Fiona has since suffered journalists outside her home and received an enormous number of threats online.

As much as Fiona’s stalking was wrong, the consequences of not disguising her identity well enough are severe. It is clear in the show that she is mentally ill, is vulnerable, and criminal justice should not happen in this way. Even Richard’s character in Baby Reindeer, the victim of her stalking, is very empathetic towards her throughout the series. The internet frenzy around Fiona Harvey was, and still is, big, culminating in Piers Morgan inviting her for an interview, in an act of exploitation against a mentally ill and vulnerable woman for entertainment.

The TV producer who sexually abused Richard’s character in Baby Reindeer remains unidentified. But people have consequently been misidentified and suffered online abuse. Gadd himself has had to come out to say an identified figure was not the abuser, but the internet remains in a frenzy of speculation to figure out who the abuser was.

As a result, Richard Gadd is being pressured to clarify line by line which parts of the show are true. This is undermining and overshadowing his writing abilities and the message of the show. If he wanted to press charges and reveal true identities, he would have.

Netflix and compliance

The internet’s reaction to Baby Reindeer was inevitable. It is human nature to want to figure out who the real people are; drama producers know this better than anyone. In the age of social media, if people want to know who the real person is, they can usually work it out, often very easily. Social media is evolving rapidly, and Netflix needs to quickly adapt its tactics to hide side characters’ identities and protect people like Fiona Harvey from internet sleuths, as well as those falsely accused of crimes they didn’t commit. Many TV companies have part-time commission executives who deal with and anticipate issues such as hiding characters’ true identities. In I May Destroy You, which is also a story detailing someone’s sexual assault, the BBC made sure the characteristics of the side characters were very different from the real people they were based on.

But Netflix does not seem to have the same policies when it comes to compliance. In the past, it has had problems with other “based on a true story” series. In 2022, Vanity Fair editor Rachel DeLoache Williams filed a lawsuit against Netflix for defaming her in Inventing Anna.

Side characters like Rachel and Martha are often caricatured to drive the story and make it more interesting. But there’s a limit. And the fallout from Baby Reindeer might be the push Netflix needs to take more care in disguising true identities.