TBI Weekly: Why ethics should lie at the heart of true crime

#Dead2Me (Source: A+E Networks EMEA)

As the global popularity of true crime soars, Mark Layton reports on conversations this week delving into the ethical considerations surrounding this in-demand genre.

When it comes to true crime, the numbers speak for themselves. Last month, TBI published its 2023 Distributor’s Survey and the results were clear – crime pays.

Global distribution firms told us that demand for true crime has remained incredibly high over the past 12 months – 68% of the surveyed companies said it was one of their best-selling genres – with crime dramas also continuing to drive the global scripted market this year.

As interest in TV crime from audiences, and therefore buyers, soars, discussion around the role and responsibilities that producers and broadcasters play in reporting on investigations remains vital.

With that in mind, the Royal Television Society and specialist media PR agency Percy & Warren teamed up to host a panel on ‘The Ethics of True Crime’ in London this week.

Led by University of Manchester chancellor, solicitor, and former chief crown prosecutor for North West England, Nazir Afzal, the panel tackled key ethical issues to consider in the true crime space, with insight from Will Hanrahan, creative director at FirstLookTV; Diana Carter, commissioning editor & head of talent at A+E Networks UK; and Clare Hoban, a solicitor from media law specialists Reviewed & Cleared.

Here are just five of the key takeaways for producers and broadcasters to consider when creating and commissioning true crime programming.

The Ethics of True Crime panel (Source: RTS London)

Justify your project

First and foremost, true crime creators should consider “whether we should be doing it at all,” said Hanrahan, whose UK-based firm FirstLookTV is behind true crime titles such as #Dead2Me, Sleeping With My Murderer and A Killer’s Mistake.

Depending on your viewpoint, that might sound like a surprising suggestion for a producer in the genre to make, but Hanrahan explained: “We should always be asking, what’s the point of us? I think there is a lot of point in informing people – justice must be seen to be done,” said the former BBC journalist and producer, arguing that programme-makers must “constantly question” the value of a project and their motivations in creating it.

“Are we doing it for the money or are we doing it for public purpose? And then, what is the purpose?,” he said, sharing FirstLookTV’s philosophy. “If we don’t think we can try to make the world a better place by informing people of something we feel they should know about, we walk away from it. We try to avoid salacious voyeurism and tell journalistic stories which we think are important.”

Don’t sensationalise

Justifying the project is not enough, however, cautioned Hoban, who said that once the production is underway, creators must avoid the pressures of making shows “larger than life” in order to compete with scripted titles.

“If you’re making a factual drama that’s based on a crime, you’ve still got a degree of freedom as to how you dramatise that and you can push boundaries, you can make up conversations, you can create a story which is kind of larger than life.

“I think there is a kind of corresponding pressure on people making true crime, sometimes, that they have to make the crime larger than life and they have to keep making it as sensational, as explosive, or as shocking as what you can create when you do a very sort of gory drama,” said Hoban.

The solicitor, whose role involves advising on the content of TV and film productions before broadcast, shared her concerns that “really explosive, really dramatic, really exciting factual crime drama has kind of infected, slightly, some of the factual content.”

She explained: “I have had conversations with programme makers, who do feel there’s a bit of pressure to push boundaries, but they want to make sure that everything that they’re doing in their factual programme is accurate.”

Avoid the male gaze

As this week’s Diamond report around the declining number of women writing and directing British TV highlighted, the UK production industry is still male dominated and this can be as big a problem in true crime as anywhere else.

“I might be the only woman that will feed into a production team, before that programme is delivered to a channel,” said Hoban, highlighting that this of real concern, particular when working on a show involving male-on-female violence.

“[When] you’re talking about someone who’s been raped and murdered, think about the balance of your team and what eyes are on that content.”

She continued: “I’ll see a lot of content where you’re at the location, and you’re going back over the crime, and that’s quite common.

“Where I think it tips into something else sometimes is when you start to have the programmes say: ‘Imagine how she was feeling at this moment. Imagine in these dark words how frightened she was looking at these trees while she was being raped.’

“It’s that kind of narrative that we need to be careful of, immersing the viewer in someone’s suffering, because it starts to become the kind of content which could become exploitative of someone’s suffering.”

Hoban also cautioned against the use of graphics, which can sometimes be used as a substitute for a lack of case material and imagery.

“So we’re dealing with a woman that was raped and murdered down by a river – [someone might suggest] let’s make a graphic that better shows all her injuries. Somebody creates that image and there has to be a degree of imagination when that’s done.

“This isn’t a one off; I’ve seen this many times. Somebody has had to imagine what that woman’s body looks like, what her breasts look like, the size of her nipples, where her hair is, where the bruises are from, where she was raped, and attacked. I’ve often seen those kinds of images and called it out – you’ve almost sexualized this person.”

Hanrahan, clearly opposed to this form of programme-making, noted here: “we don’t do genre reconstructions,” and added that: “we do tend to prefer the female gaze when it comes to telling our stories and true crime because it’s mostly women who watch. The biggest part of our audiences is female.”

Rob Rinder’s Interrogation Secrets (Source: A+E Networks EMEA)

Be prepared to improvise

Depending on the country you’re working in, this ability (or lack thereof) to get hold of video footage, case files and other essential materials from law enforcement to create a compelling true crime documentary will vary.

Discussing the Crime + Investigation UK series Rob Rinder’s Interrogation Secrets, which is based around interrogation room footage, A+E Networks’ Carter revealed: “When we started out casting that series, we could not get access to UK material; not for want of trying, we had really good relationships with the police, but we couldn’t get that footage.”

Carter explained: “We ended up doing a whole series of US footage. We had to work out how as producers. We had a set of UK authority and justice voices to comment on that footage as well as the US voices.”

This, revealed Hoban, is part of a larger issue in the UK of the police’s growing reluctance to hand over footage and materials to producers.

“Getting material is a real issue. Increasingly, there’s a reluctance to hand over anything from older cases. There’s certainly a reluctance to hand over anything, if you’re doing a more nuanced, complicated documentary, where you’re looking at an acquittal, and maybe you’re questioning it, that’s often very difficult to get those materials,” she warned.

“I think it’s outrageous, when the police don’t release the footage and things like that,” commented Hanrahan. “In this country, the justice system belongs to us all. It’s something I feel very passionately about.”

Safeguard staff – as well as victims

However, not every country’s police force is reluctant to hand over material, which can create a whole set of other issues around safeguarding staff when working on programming involving incredibly distressing topics.

In the US, for example, “there’s no stopping you getting the content that you need,” said Hanrahan. “And we have to now password protect the files that are sent from police operatives in the US, because they send you everything uncensored. We have to ensure that the producer assistants or researchers, whomsoever, are warned beforehand.”

Carter revealed that the past couple of years have also seen new measures put in place at A+E Networks to safeguard staff from coming into contact with potentially sensitive or distressing material and to ensure that it is “filtered appropriately.”

She also explained that safeguarding victims participating in true crime programming is of paramount priority, with A+E Networks employing independent therapists that had received special training from an external stalking expert for one production.

“We also had a situation where we [interviewed a stalker] in jail on a Friday. And on the Sunday we [went to contact] the victim and the perpetrator picked up the phone because he had been released.

“So you certainly have to be watertight with your care of these people. Looking at things like location, anonymity, visual anonymity, and aftercare also takes a different level of need. That’s changed our approach to contributed care, I think.”

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