Prime-Time Drama To Legal Drama: Netflix’s Biopic Blunders

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Netflix’s viewership reached new heights with the release of its limited series Baby Reindeer on April 11, 2024, which amassed over 60 million views in just one month. The series portrays the life of a struggling comedian and the toxic relationship he unknowingly develops with “Martha”, his stalker. After the series received critical acclaim, netizens took it upon themselves to probe into the true identity of “Martha” and did so successfully, without facing any hurdles.

Fiona Harvey, AKA the “real Martha”, later waived her anonymity and took to the Piers Morgan show denying several acts committed by Martha in the series and expressed how the series damaged her reputation and caused severe emotional distress. Richard Gadd, the writer and protagonist of the series, has claimed that the character “Martha” portrays a woman who stalked him for over three years and had allegedly sent over 41,000 emails and several hundred hours of voicemails. In the show, “Martha” is portrayed as a felon, convicted of stalking on several occasions (crucial point for later), a claim which Fiona Harvey denies. In recent developments, Fiona Harvey filed a lawsuit against Netflix, for defamation, negligence and violation of her privacy, seeking over $170 million in damages.

Netflix claims that ‘Baby Reindeer’ is a ‘true story’ as opposed to being a fictional account, based on true events. Although Gadd himself has owned up to dramatizing certain instances for the sake of creative liberty. Few sources suggest that even remedying the disclaimer would be little improvement considering how effortlessly Harvey’s identity was revealed. Furthermore, the lack of personality laws which protect the likeness of an individual in the UK has placed the burden of proof on Fiona Harvey to prove that she was easily identifiable in order for her to prevail in her lawsuit. Netflix has been sued previously for wrongfully portraying characters in biopics under similar circumstances. Earlier this year, Rachel Deloache Williams filed a lawsuit against Netflix claiming that Netflix wrongfully portrayed her in the series titled “Inventing Anna” which is also ‘based on true events’. Williams argued that her character was wrongfully portrayed and shown in a defamatory light throughout the course of the show. In fact, Netflix has displayed a trend of lack of due diligence and failing to show duty of care for the portrayal of the characters in its series/films which are proposed to be ‘Based on True Story’. Similar instances occurred in relation to the shows ‘Dirty Money’, ‘Queen’s Gambit’, as well as the hit series ‘When They See Us’ where defamation suits were filed against Netflix for the portrayal of their characters on screen.

A lot of care is to be taken when real life individuals are being portrayed in reel life, especially when such portrayal may open the doors to lawsuits. One such way to do so would be to deviate from any and all identifiable details of such individuals. In Harvey’s case, she explained to Vanity Fair that she was never approached or informed of the series or asked for consent for her portrayal which explains why she was easily doxed. Personality laws are still nascent in the UK and the US. Consequently, a duty of care and due diligence by studios and platforms have become essential to safeguard the rights and mental health of the stakeholders involved as the same cannot be abandoned for the sake of artistic expression.

Informing parties involved and seeking consent for portrayal where necessary are essential steps as a part of due diligence. Only recently has this necessity come about considering the outcries of the victims of Jeffrey Dahmer following its release on Netflix. On the other hand, India has been at the forefront of this issue by acknowledging personality rights at a much earlier stage, notably through the landmark case of Justice K.S. Puttuswamy v. Union of India in 2017 where a retired judge filed a case against the Aadhar Scheme claiming it to be a violation of his right to privacy. The Supreme Court recognised the right to privacy as a fundamental right. Further, under various other judgements, the courts have categorically stated that no person has the right to exercise control over the commercial exploitation of another person’s identity.

The case of Fiona Harvey and the Netflix series “Baby Reindeer” underscores the need for stronger laws for personality rights. As more real-life stories are adapted, the line between fact and fiction can blur, leading to significant consequences for those being portrayed on screen. Studios and platforms must observe ethical practices and seek adequate consents from individuals or their legal heirs as failing to do so would expose them to an array of legal ramifications whilst also causing irreversible damage to the individuals being portrayed.

Authors: Shaanal Shah, Parth Shah & Vishal Menon

Lawyers.

Interns and Paralegals.

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