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Column:'Baby Reindeer' is Netflix's latest defamation headache

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The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.

By Jenna Greene

June 12 (Reuters) -The truth may be stranger than fiction, and when it comes to television shows and movies, it can also be more expensive — at least if defamation lawyers get involved.

Last week, a woman sued Netflix seeking $170 million or more, claiming she’s the real-life version of the “Baby Reindeer” character Martha. Plaintiff Fiona Harvey says Netflix defamed her in the hit mini-series, which bills itself as “a true story,” by falsely portraying Martha as a twice-convicted criminal who spent five years in prison for stalking.

“Netflix grossly mischaracterized the truth,” her lawyer Richard Roth of The Roth Law Firm told me via email. “There are so many untruths in that ‘true story’ that we could not list them all.”

A Netflix spokesperson said that the company intends “to defend this matter vigorously” and that it stands by series creator and star Richard Gadd's “right to tell his story."

A PR representative for Gadd, who is not named in the suit, did not respond to a request for comment.

Gadd in the show plays a fictional version of himself, a struggling comedian named Donny Dunn, who is stalked by Martha in a series that critics have called a "twisted spellbinder" and a "devastating examination of trauma and abuse."

Harvey’s defamation suit is the latest in more than a dozen actions against Netflix stemming from productions inspired by real-life events, according to my search of court records, all filed by parties that say they've been harmed by the portrayals.

Some, like suits arising from “When They See Us” and “The Queen’s Gambit,” have settled. Others, including claims based on “The Laundromat,” “Making a Murderer” and “No Limit,” were tossed by judges. Others including litigation over “Inventing Anna,” “Varsity Blues” and “Surviving R. Kelly,” are ongoing.

A Netflix spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment about the company's defamation docket.

Despite the litany of cases, such suits are generally "tough to prove for plaintiffs,” Bryan Sullivan, a founding partner at Early Sullivan Wright Gizer & McRae in Los Angeles who represents plaintiffs and defendants in defamation cases, told me.

Netflix and other media companies tend to be protected by “what lay people call literary license,” in which even "true" stories may include a creative re-interpretation of actual events, Sullivan said.

Plaintiffs-side defamation lawyer Daniel Watkins said that in addition to 1st Amendment protections, state-level anti-SLAPP laws allowing defendants to counter free speech-related lawsuits make defamation cases difficult to win.

Still, the “Baby Reindeer” suit, which was filed on June 6 in Los Angeles federal court, may “give a lot of folks at Netflix quite a bit of heartburn,” said Watkins, a name partner at Meier Watkins Phillips Pusch.

Under defamation law, he said, a central question is whether a subject whose name has been changed is nonetheless identifiable based on the story.

To avoid litigation, the first goal for content producers “is to make sure the story is presented dissimilarly enough so that folks can’t identify the players,” he said.

But if the audience can indeed figure out who’s who, it becomes “incredibly important to make sure key facts are correct, and that any embellishments or other liberties taken with the story don’t result in defamation,” Watkins said.

Like the "Baby Reindeer" character Martha, Harvey in her complaint said she is a Scottish lawyer living in London who is 20 years older than Gadd. Her complaint also says she was once accused in a newspaper article of stalking a lawyer, and that she patronized the pub where Gadd worked in 2014 and where much of “Baby Reindeer” takes place.

Moreover, the complaint says that she “bears an uncanny resemblance” to actress Jessica Gunning, who plays Martha — and who adopted an accent and manner of speaking "indistinguishable" to Harvey’s in playing the role.

Netflix and Gadd have not publicly confirmed or denied Harvey is the basis for Martha.

If Netflix figured no one would be able to find the real Martha, it miscalculated, according to Harvey's complaint.

She claims she was outed by internet sleuths within days of the show’s release in April.

The tip-off? In the show, Martha and Donny use the rather distinctive phrase “hang my curtains” as a euphemism for sex.

In 2014, Harvey tweeted to Gadd, “My curtains need hung badly” – a message that was still publicly visible on Gadd’s Twitter account when the show, which according to Variety has attracted 84.5 million views, aired.

Harvey in the complaint said she’s been bombarded with negative messages on social media such as “You are a horrible person” and “Psycho stalker.” A TikTok post, “Fiona Harvey count your days,” got more than 7,000 likes. (Harvey did not respond to my Facebook message seeking comment.) She says she’s now “afraid to go outside.”

But here's the key in all of these cases: Truth is a defense to defamation under the 1st Amendment.

Harvey protests that multiple events depicted in “Baby Reindeer” including a scene where Martha sexually assaults Donny in an alley and another where she smashes a bottle over his head, are false.

Whose version of those events is more credible may be a question for a jury to decide.

But one objectively verifiable assertion is whether Harvey spent five years behind bars for stalking Gadd and another woman. In the show, Martha did. In real life, Harvey says she didn't, and that she has never been convicted of a crime.

If Harvey is right, Netflix lawyers may indeed have some heartburn in store as this case unfolds.


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