In the first episode of the documentary series The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann, which arrived on Netflix this morning, Portuguese reporter Sandra Felgueiras recalls having an epiphany. It was 2007, a three-year-old girl had just gone missing during a family holiday to the Algarve, and Felgueiras had been sent to cover the case. She watched Madeleine’s parents, Gerry and Kate, make their first public statement to the press. As Gerry spoke, voice breaking, of his “anguish and despair”, his wife stared at the ground, clutching her daughter’s pink cuddly toy. “This is not news,” Felgueiras remembers thinking. “This not a story. This is their life.”
The same argument could be made against this eight-part documentary’s very existence. In the tradition of other recent true crime phenomena – Serial, Making a Murderer, The Jinx – the series pores over the details of Madeleine’s disappearance, taking its viewers through every step of the case via contemporary news reports, interviews with witnesses, journalists and investigators, and dramatised re-enactments. An orchestra swells beneath the most intense moments. There are sweeping, cinematic aerial shots of the town and its surrounding beaches. Actors recreate the worst evening of the McCanns’ life, when they discovered their daughter had been snatched from her bed.
Aside from the audio of a few archive interviews, the McCanns themselves are conspicuously absent from the documentary. They refused to participate. “We did not see – and still do not see – how this programme will help the search for Madeleine,” a statement from the family reads. “And, particularly given there is an active police investigation, it could potentially hinder it.” That didn’t stop the streaming platform going ahead with it. True crime is big business, after all.
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It is hardly a new phenomenon. In the mid-16th century, true crime pamphlets, which laid out the gory details of recent murders, were widespread in Britain. They continued to be popular for several centuries, before evolving into newspaper columns, books, and now TV shows, podcasts and films.
But they have never been quite so popular as they are now – having transformed from schlocky, daytime TV to something glossier and higher brow. True crime is not a guilty pleasure anymore, but a national pastime. It is no longer required to have an opinion on who should have been voted out of Simon Cowell’s latest talent show, but on whether Adnan Syed killed Hae Min Lee (Serial); whether Steven Avery has been wrongly imprisoned (Making a Murderer); or whether Robert Durst’s bathroom murder confession, caught on his microphone on HBO series The Jinx, was genuine. But as the popularity of such programmes has risen, so too has the ethical dilemma that surrounds them.
“If deemed a ‘good enough story’, private grief becomes public property,” wrote Lauren Bradford, whose mother was murdered by her father in 1991, in an article forThe Guardian. Her family’s tragedy was turned not into a documentary, but an ITV drama called The Secret; her piece drew comparisons between the two. “News is important, and when handled factually it serves the public interest,” she wrote. “But there is a clear distinction between public interest and what is of interest to the public – the latter is problematic.” In a 2011 report of families who had lost loved ones to homicide, over 80 per cent of them were found to be suffering from trauma-related symptoms. Having that trauma dredged up could be hugely triggering.
Besides, once public interest has been ignited, there is no extinguishing it. Since Serial – the podcast investigating the 1999 murder of high school student Hae Min Lee – was released in 2014, internet sleuths, or so-called armchair detectives, have been trying to crack the case themselves. With the public sympathy behind him, Adnan Syed, who was convicted of his ex-girlfriend’s murder in 2000, sought a new trial in 2016.
In the weeks that followed, Lee’s family released the following statement: “The events of this past week have reopened wounds few can imagine. It remains hard to see so many run to defend someone who committed a horrible crime, who destroyed our family, who refuses to accept responsibility, when so few are willing to speak up for Hae. Unlike those who learn about this case on the internet, we sat and watched every day of both trials – so many witnesses, so much evidence.” Therein lies another issue: the innate subjectivity of these documentaries, and the information they gloss over, either because it is too dry to be entertaining, or because it doesn’t suit the narrative they are creating.
Last year, I interviewed Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, the creators of Making a Murderer. The two-season documentary followed the story of Steven Avery, who was exonerated from a rape conviction only to be imprisoned for the murder of 25-year-old photographer Teresa Halbach. I felt a little uncomfortable when they referred, at various points in our conversation, to the “story”, the “characters” and the “drama” of the murder case. In a statement, Teresa’s family said: “We are saddened to learn that individuals and corporations continue to create entertainment and to seek profit from our loss.”
But it was clear, too, that Demos and Ricciardi were passionate about highlighting the fundamental failings of the US criminal justice system – failings whose effects reach far wider than the Averys and Halbachs. “I guess I would say I understand why they’re saying what they’re saying,” said Demos, “but I’m also disappointed that that’s how they feel. Because we believe that asking questions is not a gesture of disrespect, but in fact the opposite.”
It’s worth noting that according to a 2010 study, women consume more true crime than men. Perhaps that’s because they are more likely to be a victim of such crimes, and so seek insight into the mindset of attackers. A friend of mine who considers herself a “murderino” – the collective name for fans of the podcast My Favourite Murder – said she engages in true crime because “I like to know what’s out there. People are terrible and I want to know why.”
Plenty of good can come from true crime documentaries. Making a Murderer sparked conversations about classism, police ineptitude and flaws in the US justice system. The 2016 documentary OJ: Made in America reflected on how OJ Simpson’s trial, for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown, was inexorably tied to racial tensions in LA. The film also exposed the psychology of domestic abuse. Thanks largely to The Jinx, Robert Durst is currently awaiting a new trial for the murder of his wife Kathleen Durst and neighbour Morris Black, for which he evaded justice for many years.
Clearly, true crime documentaries cannot be condemned in one fell swoop. But when it is so easy to turn private grief into public property, they must be done carefully. Because, as Lauren Bradford put it, “the reality of murder is devoid of eerie music or close-ups, just devastation and sorrow”.