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How to mainline true crime

People are tuning in for entertainment, not pure information

This article is taken from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In the United States a couple of years ago, a rumour spread on Facebook that a serial killer was on the loose. “Wrong,” said the police. The rumour was false and the photo of the “murderer” that was being passed around was of a man who had been jailed on unrelated charges. Somehow, though, versions of the same rumour popped up in California, Texas, Illinois, Louisiana and Tennessee.

I’m sure some of the people who passed along the rumours were genuinely scared. Others, though, were fascinated. From books, to Netflix documentaries, to podcast series, millions of us cannot get enough of reading, and watching, and listening to media about the worst of crimes and the worst of criminals. It’s nothing new. As Kate Summerscale wrote in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, “detective fever” has been around since the 1800s. Our fascination with criminals is older still.

The presenters of The Trial are keen not to behave as if they are enjoying the morbid details

The current popularity of true crime stories can lead to some unpleasantly exploitative media. “When listening to a true crime podcast,” the charmless creator of the American true crime podcast Sword and Scale asked his fans on Twitter in 2022, “which race do you prefer the murder victims to be?”

Jack Hardy and Caroline Cheetham of the Daily Mail’s podcast The Trial are keen not to behave as if they are enjoying the morbid details of the crimes that they discuss. Funereal music plays in the background, while Hardy and Cheetham’s tone oozes sympathy.

This gets a bit over the top. The pair are so sensitive to the need to emphasise the gravity of the events they discuss that “Welcome to episode one” is delivered in the same sombre tones as “Her body had been found”.

Still, the seriousness is welcome. After all, The Trial is not simply covering historical crimes but alleged crimes for which people are currently on trial. The facts have to come first — and there must be a clear distinction between what is known and what is alleged.

Mark Gordon and Constance Marten (Metropolitan Police Handout)

Previous episodes have covered the trial of the nurse Lucy Letby, the killing of Irish schoolteacher Ashling Murphy and the murder of the teenager Brianna Ghey. Now, Hardy and Cheetham are covering the trial of Mark Gordon and Constance Marten.

Charged with manslaughter over the death of their baby girl, the public interest in Gordon and Marten’s case is hardly surprising given the nature of the alleged crime, their dramatic flight from social services and the police and Marten’s aristocratic background.

Covering ongoing trials is pure morbidity — the neat alcohol of true crime podcasts

The solemn tone and laser focus on the court proceedings — without extra opinionating from the presenters — amount to a commendable attempt to avoid exploitativeness. The problem is that there is no reason to listen to the podcast except for morbid curiosity. Why else would you follow a podcast about the tragic death of a little girl?

For all of Hardy and Cheetham’s efforts, then, this makes the whole project comparable to an erotic film in which the participants keep announcing, mid-coitus, that it is in fact an instructional video for biology students.

It’s a nice try, but it is essentially delusional. People are tuning in for entertainment, not pure information, and there is always an exploitative aspect to this.

Covering ongoing trials only makes this doubly true. There are no deeper cultural or psychological themes, at least discernibly, because so many of the facts have yet to be confirmed — besides which, the listener is inevitably encouraged to play at being a detective, which seems unhealthy when no official account has been established. This is pure morbidity — the neat alcohol of true crime podcasts.

The same awkwardness haunted the Financial Times reporter Miles Johnson’s Hot Money — The New Narcos, which finished its second season in December but is still available to listen to at Pushkin Industries. Johnson tells the fascinating story of the Kinahan Cartel, a gang of family-oriented Irish mobsters involved in drugs, money laundering and murder, in a bland, chatty style, as if he is reading the financial news.

Johnson’s interviewees, though, which include some of the detectives who have chased the Kinahans between Dublin and Dubai, are far more charismatic. This makes sense. They have earned their emotional investment in the narrative. War stories, after all, are best coming from soldiers.

Johnson’s series is both entertaining and disturbing as it explores how “the line between criminal activity and state-backed enterprise, between big business and gangsters, has become fuzzier”. (Was it ever all that clear? Maybe not. But it is a good story nonetheless.) The true crime junkie can get their fix of entertainment yet be informed as well.

Meanwhile, ecstasy trafficker turned podcaster Shaun Attwood is still churning out content. Attwood was released from prison in 2007 and has turned himself into a media machine. His various platforms are seething with interviews about gangsters, Meghan Markle, Jeffrey Epstein, Jimmy Savile, the Illuminati and the paranormal — anything to grab someone’s attention. It’s a tough business, podcasting. But, then, so is organised crime.

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