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The Ethics of True Crime: Invasive Voyeurism, or Natural Fascination?

 By Maeve O’Keeffe 

I recently subscribed to the email lists of some prominent Irish newspapers, and usually there is nothing too ground-breaking about the headlines that ping into my inbox every  morning. There are stories about COVID-19, the state of the economy, the environment, match  reports, and the controversies and scandals of both political and celebrity figures. It’s all rather conventional newspaper fodder. However, I’ve also observed a more obscure fixation in the  Irish media. Twenty-five years after the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier in the benign  west Cork town of Schull, newspapers are still churning out stories about her death. From  reports of chief suspect Ian Bailey’s living situation, and the demise of his marriage, to new  evidence in the case, and Toscan du Plantier’s son’s quest for justice, the story of this murder  is still captivating the Irish public, even all these years later. Why?  

It’s fair to say that the True Crime genre has seen a significant surge in popularity in  recent times. Netflix shows such as Evil Genius and The Ted Bundy Tapes have generated high  ratings. Toscan du Plantier’s death was catapulted back into the limelight recently with popular  series produced by both Netflix and Sky this summer preceded by the award-winning Audible  original West Cork podcast by Sam Bungey and Jennifer Forde, as well as true crime books  like Nick Foster’s Murder at Roaringwater. Suddenly, we were all donning our Sherlock  Holmes deerstalker hats, and discussing opinions on Ian Bailey’s innocence or guilt. This isn’t  the first time we’ve seen a resurgence of interest in a years old case. As soon as a popular  service like Netflix produces a series on an unsolved mystery, like The Disappearance of  Madeleine McCann, public interest in the crime in question is reignited, and we all play  detective, sharing perspectives on who we think is guilty.  

In fact, when Sky launched its new Sky Crime channel in 2019, its publicity campaign  hinged largely on the alluring invitation to “go behind the yellow tape, piece together the  evidence, interrogate, and identify the suspects.” This campaign, promising to “unleash the  detective in everyone” and encouraging viewers to “question everything” is perhaps  unsurprising given the culture of public speculation that is ignited each time a new True Crime  show or podcast becomes popular. Audiences get to inhabit the role of detectives from the  comfort of their living room, many engaging with social media platforms like Twitter or Reddit  to share their outlooks on the crimes and criminals in question. 

Some argue that it is this scope for interaction and discussion that posits true crime as  one of the most increasingly popular genres of the past decade. True crime programmes offer  the opportunity to feel a sense of immersion in a real criminal investigation, without any real  expertise. There is a participatory aspect that helps explain the appeal of True Crime as a genre,  as viewers converse over who they think committed the crime and police failings in the  investigation.  

Others suggest that the popularity of the genre lies in how it allows us to delve into the  darkness of humanity from the safe confines of our living rooms. There is an undoubted  adrenaline rush that accompanies hearing accounts of violent murders and crimes. Some have  proposed that there is an evolutionary benefit to true crime consumption, that it fulfils a need  within us to learn as much as possible about the crimes in question, so that we may feel a sense  of preparation, lest we ever encounter a psychopathic killer ourselves.  

Though it may be hard to explain, the popularity of true crime must be coming from  somewhere, as it has prompted an industry shift in entertainment. No, the love of true crime  may not necessarily be new; Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Helter Skelter by Vincent  Bugliosi are both classic books of the genre, having been published in 1966 and 1974  respectively. However, the inescapable ubiquity of the genre is a more recent phenomenon. As  soon as prominent streaming services like Netflix tapped into the modern viewer’s insatiable  appetite for true crime, the saturation of true crime in the media exploded.  

However, is it ethical for streaming services to profit from what the exploitation of what  is essentially a tragedy? Like rubbernecking after a car accident, is it invasive and voyeuristic  to view real life tragedy as nothing more than a source of entertainment to satisfy our strange  fascination with morbidity? 

The stories are by nature, charged with emotion, but they are also often sensationalised  with vivid, evocative accounts from key witnesses, reporters, and legal counsel. That’s what  makes them so engaging and addictive to watch. But does the sensitive, emotional nature of  these crimes render them as inappropriate viewing content when there are real families and  victims affected by the content of the programme? Is it crass, if not downright immoral, to  provoke such widespread public discourse about the nature of a crime, when we, as viewers  are in not really in a position of sufficient knowledge or expertise to reach anything more than  a speculative conclusion?

From youth, we are fascinated with the idea of good vs evil. The fairy tales and films  we consumed as children offered comfort in the black-and-white portrayals of morality that they offered us. We love the idea of the wicked witch and innocent Dorothy, the evil stepmother  in contrast to the benevolent fairy Godmother. Having such cut-and-dry heroes and villains  offers escape from having to concentrate too hard on the nuances of human nature. Perhaps  popular true crime shows are capitalising on this human desire for clear cut portrayals of good  and evil. The murderers are amplified into villains of monstrous proportions, and the victims  are often either valorised, or neglected entirely in the story-telling. The portrayals are satisfying  in their simplicity. 

When The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann propelled the case back into the public  consciousness in 2019, I couldn’t help but wonder about the wellbeing of the family at the heart  of the tragedy, with Madeleine’s siblings now teenagers. How helpful is it for Netflix to profit  from tragedies like these, and is it ethical? Though we may feel like we are honouring victims,  keeping their memory alive, or on a quest for justice, it is worth remembering that most of the  time, the only winner is the streaming company, who make immense profits from inexpensively  produced documentaries about real people. We cannot forget the pain and suffering endured  by the victims and their families each time they make headlines, for the sake of entertainment.  Though we might like to bask in a feeling of vigilante justice in spouting our theories on  criminal investigations and murders, it could be seen as self-indulgent to imagine ourselves as  the Sherlock Holmes ready to assemble the missing pieces in cases that experts have spent  years trawling through with far more information at their disposal.