The Pilot Light TV Festival is an annual event held in Central Manchester. When I was invited to join a panel discussing the growth of true crime and ethical considerations for the genre, I accepted in seconds as it was the chance to spend more time in this great City (I am in Manchester to talk serial killers on 28 May, get your ticket here) and to discuss some of the questions I spend a lot of time pondering.
Alongside me on the panel was Donal MacIntryre, who needs little introduction for those of us in the uk and I have enjoyed his work for what seems like two decades. We were joined by an academic from Manchester Met University, Kevin Wong, and finally, Rachel Fairburn, a very funny stand-up comic (buy tickets for her shows here) and half of the excellent All Killa No Filla podcast. The panel was chaired very effectively by up and coming journalist and broadcaster Emma Bullimore and sponsored by CBS Reality.
In the short piece below, I have tried to capture and summarise in no particular order the issues discussed in this wide-ranging conversation over the course of 75 minutes. Of course, as always, any errors are all my own.
All about the victims
Interestingly, the over-riding theme of the discussion was how victims of crime are treated in true crime shows. The McCann case arose – of course, it always does – and we talked about the concept of the ‘perfect victim’ and the disproportionate amount of time devoted to missing Madeline and others with similar characteristics such as Ben Needham or Claudia Lawrence, whilst certain other missing people received very little coverage or police resource. We touched on rewards for missing people which seem to decrease in time rather than increase, almost giving the impression that the missing person becomes less important as time passes. Why is this and what can we do to change it?
In TV the OFCOM regulations are pretty effective in how victims of crime are treated by and in academia the controls are incredibly tough, especially around primary research with families directly affected, which can slow down research to a painful level. In podcasting, there are no set standards but due to the nature of the medium, it was suggested that the audience makes very clear what is and isn’t acceptable, and a set of rules is beginning to emerge.
The myth of Bundy
We discussed the new Ted Bundy film starring Zac Efron. The view from the panel was that although there is a commercial reality for some shows to be based around entertainment/ratings – especially in tv and particularly in the US – we have to move away from making these awful monsters in any way iconic. Zac Efron starring in the latest film is a prime example of what needs to change to reduce the market for people who think buying a blood splattered headband from etsy is ok. Some podcasters don’t help, and as an example the US podcast Sword & Scale was mentioned as one who offered Serial Killers shot glasses to supporters.
As you may expect, there was a clear view that there is absolutely nothing to celebrate about Bundy and in reality, he wasn’t especially attractive and if you have heard some of his interviews, you will know full well that when he spoke he was an utterly dreary narcissist. Again, there was a real desire to move the conversation and focus away from the perpetrator to the victim, whilst acknowledging how difficult this sometimes can be as most of the information readily available tends to be about the people committing crimes.
The rise of the True Crime genre
We spoke about the rise of true crime and how the internet has made the genre higher profile as fans can now use the internet share information, build communities and reassure each other that is ok to enjoy true crime. The argument that it is just people treading over others grief for fun was dismissed, as consuming the details of crime it is something humans have done for years – ever since the late 17th century when newspapers focussed on crime to shift copy, and of course, it wasn’t so long ago that crowds used to gather to watch public executions. There was a view that our enjoyment of true crime is really influenced by how much we care: after all, it focusses on the most profound areas of human emotion and physical/mental experience, and we are naturally interested in what happens and why – this is why we watch tv, read books, listen to audio and follow people on social channels isn’t it?
And if all drama is about conflict, then true crime is at the sharp end of this and whereas fictional crime drama can sometimes feel a bit samey, and repetitive, that is not the case with true crime. It also has a ready-made format which appeals to us as humans who like to add structure to make sense of information, as most true cases have a very clearly defined beginning (a terrible crime), middle (the search for the perpetrator) and end (justice potentially being served).
In this age of the internet, it is absolutely understandable that communities have developed to follow and discuss their interests. But how these true crime communities who have grown up engage with the people directly affected by crime is a tricky one. Individuals need to be careful if they do reach out directly to those affected by crime – even if the motives are positive, such as aiming to offer assistance in a case that remains unsolved – as their actions can cause hurt, upset and distress for families who have been through a terrible experience.
And then there is the tricky subject of consent. Journalists don’t only comment on people who have died using information given when they are alive, and there is an argument that it is an unfortunate reality that people affected by true crime unwittingly become public figures. And surely with the increasing availability of personal information facilitated by the internet, this will only increase, there is no going back.
Mental health and how it is treated arose. As creators, we need to be incredibly careful about the language used when discussing these issues. And care was also the watchword for the debate about the detail provided about specific people and cases. Maybe not all creators have a duty to find out all the detailed information about the people involved in a case, especially those without access to research teams, but we certainly have a duty to at least get the basic facts of every victim of crime we discuss such as names, dates of births and to ensure these are correct. It is again, vital to the victims in any case that this information is used to bring them to life as people and not just victims.
Relationship between tv and podcasts
The relationship between tv and podcasts is an interesting one. It was felt that podcasts are an ideal vehicle for true crime as they are able to go into so much detail which maybe can’t always be covered in a true crime tv programme. There is also something around the way a host of a podcast can build real credibility and trust with an audience which is much harder for tv hosts of the genre to achieve. Maybe the future is the two combined with a podcast running alongside the tv programme?
As I hope I have been able to explain, it was an interesting discussion and one we should be engaging with more as the genre continues to develop and grow in popularity. A huge thank you to the sponsor of the event, CBS Reality, and to the Pilot Light TV Festival. This is the fourth year the festival has run and there are so many great events to attend, so put the date in your diary for next year to head to Manchester for some really cool content. Hopefully I will see you there.