Baby Reindeer, internet sleuths and the perils of jigsaw identification

Baby Reindeer, internet sleuths and the perils of jigsaw identification

More than 22 million viewers have watched dark comedy-drama Baby Reindeer since it launched on Netflix on 11 April 2024. Much of the show’s tension, and no doubt success, derives from the fact that it is based on a true story. The show follows Donny, a stand-up comedian, who is stalked by an obsessive middle-aged woman called Martha, and subjected to severe sexual abuse by his mentor, a successful older writer called Darrien. The show has been written by Richard Gadd, who plays Donny, and dramatises the real-life trauma suffered by Gadd at the hands of his stalker and abuser.

Gadd has been open in interviews about the fact that the events depicted are based on his own experiences. Details have been changed in the show to protect the identities of his stalker and abuser but the weeks since its release have seen frenzied speculation online about who these individuals could be. The speculation became so bad that last week Gadd took to Instagram to try to calm things down, saying that people he loves and admires were “unfairly getting caught up in speculation. Please don’t speculate on who any of the real-life people could be. That’s not the point of our show.” Despite this, the woman who allegedly stalked Gadd has now identified herself, challenging the show’s depiction of her and claiming that she is considering legal action.

Jigsaw identification

Even where names are changed to avoid identifying real-life individuals, there is a risk that different, accessible pieces of information can be pieced together to reveal a person’s identity. This process is known as jigsaw identification and is defined as “the ability to identify someone by using two or more different pieces of information from two or more sources – especially when the person’s identity is meant to be secret for legal reasons.” In the case of Baby Reindeer, for example, viewers have been trying to piece together the project Gadd was working on at the time of the alleged assault by his mentor to work out the alleged abuser’s identity. This has led to several names in the screen-writing world being circulated online with potentially damaging implications. In the case of the woman on whom Martha is based, it seems she has been identified partly from the use of real emails and social media posts sent by her to Gadd and referred to in the show.

Defamation and privacy

For any production based on real-life events there will be a risk that the depiction of the individuals may be defamatory if they can be identified. A person may have a claim in defamation if they can show that they were identifiable as the person in question, and that serious harm has been caused to their reputation as a result. Of course, the programme-makers may have a number of defences available to any defamation claim, including truth, honest opinion and/or public interest.

Similarly, a person may have a claim in privacy if they can show they were identifiable and that the portrayal of them breached their right to privacy. In such a case the programme-makers would need to show that the right to freedom of expression and/or public interest outweighed the individual’s right to privacy. In relation to both defamation and privacy issues, whether any claim is likely to succeed will turn on the facts of the case.

Mitigating the risk

There are several ways to mitigate the risk of jigsaw identification where there are concerns around defamation and/or privacy issues. In addition to changing the person’s name, it may also be worth changing their age, the chronology of events, the location where the events took place and the date the events are set. Consideration should be given to how an individual might be identifiable from other information in the public domain and ultimately a balance must be struck between telling an effective story and mitigating against the risk of a potential defamation claim.

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