Baby Reindeer: The power of the true story and the moral debate over identity

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If you haven’t seen it yet, you must.

Baby Reindeer is arguably one of the most binge-watchable shows on Netflix right now – if not for months.

But if you are perplexed by the classic set up of a joke in the first episode – woman walks into a bar – the punchline is anything but funny.

Especially, perhaps, for the woman herself. The real woman, that is. The one who has been mass-identified and hounded as the real-life Martha across social media this week.

You might argue that this intimately personal story from Scottish comedian Richard Gadd – who plays the role of himself – is his to tell.

After all, he was the one who became enmeshed in the web of this female stalker who sent him more than 41,000 emails, 350 hours of voicemail, 744 tweets, 46 Facebook messages and 106 pages of letters, over a four-year period.

And meanwhile, perhaps it could be argued that she waived her right to privacy when she became a convicted serial harasser.

But privacy is a tricky subject – something to balance between the power of a true story told well versus the moral debate around people being identified or misidentified.

The story

Baby Reindeer is a complicated and sometimes funny look at mental health problems, following a depressed Scottish barman called Donny, played by Gadd, as he becomes enmeshed in the life of female customer Martha Scott.

Gadd admitted that while chronology and some events have been “tweaked slightly to create dramatic climaxes, it’s very emotionally true.”

Indeed in 2015, a woman began stalking Gadd. Somewhat older than him in the drama, two decades older in real life, she carried on her campaign of harassment over several years bombarding him with messages, sending gifts, following him to his comedy gigs and even showing up at his house. Yes, that is all true.

But the most horrific truth of Gadd’s life story actually isn’t Martha, but his experience of catastrophic sexual violence at the hands of another individual.

In the show this perpetrator is portrayed as Darrien, played by actor Tom Goodman-Hill, described as a successful and powerful director in the series.

Like Martha, the real person behind the character has also been the subject of much discussion from internet sleuths.

And this week Gadd was drawn into a heated debate when one misidentified high-profile man threatened legal action against those who suggested he was guilty of the sex crime portrayed in the show.

And this, my friends, is where is gets murky.

Social media detectives

Social media is an amazing tool in so many ways and one of the most brilliant things it has done is allowed us to get information quickly from source.

Some examples of social media users that scooped traditional media include the witness to the 2009 crash of US Airways flight 1549 (remember Sully?), those on the scene during the G20 violence in London in 2009, TMZ which tweeted Michael Jackson’s death, and, shockingly, a tech expert who accidentally live-tweeted the Navy SEAL raid which led to the death of Osama Bin Laden nine hours before it was announced.

But this ability to get firsthand accounts of what is happening – in real time no less – is also social media’s most divisive problem.

After all, as a social media user, you can be eager to share content. You can also try to judge whether it is true or not. But for many people it is difficult to prioritise both these things at once.

And then of course, there is people’s compulsion to share info that then fuels misinformation.

Which of course brings us back to Baby Reindeer.

This is part of a new culture of internet detectives. And perhaps in some way they could be considered stalkers themselves.

Drama makers are usually very careful in disguising people, routinely changing some of the fundamentals, and not just names, to prevent people being identified or misidentified.

But the momentum created by Baby Reindeer proved impossible to stop which has led to West Midlands police confirming they are investigating reports of threatening messages on social media.

Clearly the moral row will rage on for a while longer.

Especially when storytelling clearly plays an incredibly important and powerful role in championing those who don’t have a voice.

So what is it in us that makes us want to know the truth? To seek out the story? To try to work out what makes others tick?

In my opinion, it’s all about connection.

The power of the true story

When we see the words, “based on a true story,” flash across the screen, our heart skips a beat. The story we are about to see is real. It happened.

And, whether through morbid curiosity, hope, as a window to the past or for inspiration, we want to know more.

From The Exorcist to Titanic, Hidden Figures to 12 Years a Slave and The Blind Slide to Schindler’s List, this truth telling allows us insight, educates us and gives us understanding in a way that the escapism of fiction cannot. It’s connection.

Ok so for a minute, let’s put this into PR terms.

Communicating your truth is what allows you to truly connect with people on an emotional level.

And storytelling continues to serve as pivotal means to share experiences and propagate knowledge.

So it’s understandable that in public relations, it has become a powerful tool used by organisations to describe their brand or illustrate a message and engage with audiences and stakeholders.

What’s more, it builds brand credibility which  encompasses the trust, reputation and authenticity associated with a brand – making people more likely to become loyal to it and differentiate it from competitors.

The bottom line is that if you can create stories that resonate with a potential customer’s wants and needs and talk about their goals in life and the challenges they might face, you’ve made that connection.

And you won’t need to stalk anybody to generate leads after that.

If you need help with your content, drop us a line.

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