What do Baby Reindeer and Richard III have in common? Netflix and Steve Coogan’s production company Baby Cow, have both been sued for libel over their portrayal of “real people” in their TV and film productions. The recent cases highlight the risk of a defamation claim if care is not taken to ensure the production fairly portrays the depicted person. 

Netflix has come under fire following the phenomenal success of its show Baby Reindeer, that tells the story of comedian Richard Gadd’s interactions with his female stalker, Martha. The woman who claims to be the real-life Martha, Fiona Harvey, is suing Netflix for $170 million in damages. 

In the show, Martha stalks Gadd for six months hanging around his house, work and bombarding him with emails, tweets and voicemails. Martha has criminal convictions for stalking and harassment and pleads guilty to harassing Gadd at the end of the show. 

Harvey came forward as ‘the real Martha’ following internet sleuths linking her to the show. She claims that Netflix’s portrayal of her character is defamatory as she has no criminal convictions and her interactions with Gadd did not amount to harassment. Her legal team have asked Netflix to produce the “41,000 emails” and “350 hours of voicemail messages” that Gadd is depicted receiving in the show. 

Netflix’s trouble lies in the text at the start of each episode that unambiguously states, “this is a true story”. Netflix has declined to confirm if Harvey is the inspiration for Martha and has said it will rigorously defend the claims and Gadd’s right to tell his story.

The plot thickened when Netflix executive Benjamin King stood behind the ‘true’ assertion when giving evidence before the Parliamentary Culture Media and Sport Committee. King told them the show was "obviously a true story of the horrific abuse that the writer and protagonist Richard Gadd suffered at the hands of a convicted stalker" and claimed that sufficient safeguarding had been considered when concealing the true identities of the characters. 

As Netflix is based in the Netherlands, it is exempt from the UK’s broadcasting regulations. However, the recently passed Media Act means content from video-on-demand services such as Netflix will be covered by Ofcom’s broadcasting code. In the future streaming providers will be subject to the UK’s standards for accurate, harmful and offensive material on television.  

In the UK, Baby Cow and Pathe Productions are facing allegations of libel for the portrayal of university academic, Richard Taylor, in a film about the discovery of Richard III’s remains.

The Lost King tells the story of the search for the lost remains, focusing on historian Phillipa Langley and archaeologists from the University of Leicester. 

Following a preliminary hearing in the High Court, Judge Jaron Lewis ruled that the portrayal of Taylor was potentially defamatory. Judge Lewis found Taylor was represented throughout the film in a negative light and portrayed Taylor as having “knowingly misrepresented facts to the media and the public” about the discovery, and “smug, unduly dismissive and patronising”. The case can now proceed to trial.. 

For the studios concerned, we suspect the unfolding court action was not the drama they intended to produce…