The 5 Words That Open ‘Baby Reindeer’ Could Decide Its Legal Fate

Ed Miller/Netflix
Ed Miller/Netflix

Fiona Harvey, who’s come forward claiming to be the real-life inspiration behind the stalker character “Martha” in Netflix’s Baby Reindeer series, said in her defamation and negligence lawsuit against the streamer on Thursday that the series told “the biggest lie in television history.”

That lie, according to the complaint, are the five words that appear on screen right after the first scene of the first episode: “This is a true story.”

Harvey goes on to allege that Netflix “destroyed” her life, describing herself as “an innocent woman defamed by Netflix and Richard Gadd at a magnitude and scale without precedent.” She’s seeking $170 million for “defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence, gross negligence, and violations of Harvey’s right of publicity” over what she claims are “brutal lies” perpetuated by the series and Gadd.

Netflix said in a statement to CNN, “We intend to defend this matter vigorously and to stand by Richard Gadd’s right to tell his story.”

Legal experts say real-life Martha may actually have a case. Defamation expert and litigator Mitchell J. Langberg tells The Daily Beast, “It’s a very powerful story from the perspective of a defamation plaintiff.”

“At the outset, the things that are typically issued in high profile defamation cases don’t seem to be issues here. What I mean by that [Harvey] is not a public figure,” therefore, “She only has to show they were negligent, meaning that they didn’t act reasonably in figuring out the truth or falsity of what they were doing.”

Langberg adds another point that bodes well for Harvey: “The other issue that comes up a lot when somebody’s real name isn’t used is you have to prove that it’s about the person—and here showing all the messages she got [from the cyber sleuths who tracked her down] makes it very clear that a good part of the public knew it was about her. So these are really serious allegations about her that are certain to cause harm to her reputation and certain to cause her emotional distress if they’re false.”

Former federal prosecutor Neama Rahmani seconds that sentiment when he tells The Daily Beast, “Harvey has a chance if she can prove that Netflix and Gadd misappropriated her name and that their depiction was misleading.” However, at least based on her interview with Piers Morgan, Harvey could, at the very least, potentially have issues proving that she did not send Gadd 41,000 emails, 350 voicemails, 744 tweets, 48 Facebook messages, and 106 letters, as described in the series.

Harvey said on Piers Morgan Uncensored last month that the show’s depiction was an “exaggerated” version of the pair’s relationship. The biggest elements of Martha’s portrayal that Harvey takes issue with are that she was “a twice convicted criminal” who spent five years in prison for stalking Gadd, a policeman, and another woman, and that she sexually assaulted Gadd—but she stumbled when asked whether or not she’d actually sent Gadd that much correspondence during the interview. (Harvey later said she felt “used” and “set up” by the sit-down.)

“There may have been a couple of emails,” she said, later qualifying her statements about the obsessive messages with the antecedent, “Even if it were true.” If there is truth there, as was suggested during the Piers Morgan interview, that could jeopardize her case.

Rahmani stresses that the series’ accuracy to what actually happened will be key: “Truth is a complete defense to defamation, of course, so the case will come down to whether Baby Reindeer was accurate or not.”

“If it was, it’s case closed,” he says. “If it wasn’t, then the jury will have to decide damages. We’ve seen some big damage awards in recent defamation cases involving Donald Trump, Johnny Depp, and Alex Jones, so Netflix will probably settle if there is any exposure.”

And settle is something we’ve seen Netflix do: Just recently, the streamer settled a lawsuit brought by the former prosecutor in the Central Park Five case, for her portrayal in the series When They See Us, although she didn’t receive any money in that case. The company is still wading through the defamation lawsuit from a former friend of Anna Sorokin’s over her depiction in Inventing Anna, as Netflix lost its bid to dismiss that case in March.

As for Baby Reindeer, the credits include a statement that reads, “This program is based on real events: however certain characters, names, incidents, locations, and dialogue have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes.” Whether or not that will be enough to negate the definitive declaration that starts the series will ultimately come down to how “true” a story this Netflix sensation really is.

‘Baby Reindeer’s’ Real-Life Martha Has a Heated Sit-Down With Piers Morgan

Read more at The Daily Beast.

Get the Daily Beast's biggest scoops and scandals delivered right to your inbox. Sign up now.

Stay informed and gain unlimited access to the Daily Beast's unmatched reporting. Subscribe now.