Culture

The virtual jury’s out as appetite for true crime podcasts grows

For the makers of The Teacher’s Pet, the result could not be better: an Australian man who murdered his wife 40 years ago was convicted after a detailed reinvestigation of the case by the true crime podcast.

It uncovered flaws in the original police investigation and an unwillingness by prosecutors to charge Chris Dawson with the murder of his wife, Lynette.

The verdict was a sensational vindication for its makers. But it has also thrown up challenging questions about the apparently insatiable appetite for true crime documentaries and dramas, the legal tightrope their makers must navigate and the response of the police and prosecutors.

The Teacher’s Pet deserves credit for keeping the case in the public eye for several years. This podcast had so many listeners worldwide, and it was continually being talked about, it kept visibility high – and that has an important role to play,” said Tanya Horeck, author of Justice on Demand: True Crime in the Digital Streaming Age.

The Teacher’s Pet’s hit No 1 in podcast charts in Australia, UK, Canada and New Zealand, and its 16 episodes were downloaded more than 60m times.

The true crime genre has exploded since the success of Serial eight years ago. In a 12-episode series, journalist Sarah Koenig investigated the 1999 murder of Baltimore teenager Hae Min Lee, and the trial, conviction and life imprisonment of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed.

The podcast went straight to no 1 on the iTunes charts and by early 2016 it had been downloaded more than 80m times. It changed the world of podcasts, and created a global virtual jury of listeners. (In 2019, the US supreme court rejected Syed’s request for a new trial.)

Hundreds of true crime podcasts followed Serial, and there has been a surge in television dramas and documentaries based on real life crime. In 2015, the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer attracted more than 19 million viewers in its first month online.

“True crime has always been popular,” said Horeck. “But there is a newfound popularity because of digital culture and because true crime is a genre that lends itself to participatory media culture.

“On a daily basis, most of us go on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok to look up information and people we’re interested in. True crime seeps into that because it’s about investigation, about finding out information. In the pre-digital age, we were armchair detectives, but now we’re internet sleuths, and that’s quite intoxicating.”

Alexi Mostrous, host of the Sweet Bobby podcast, which investigated how a woman was defrauded by a sophisticated online “catfisher”, said the fact that podcasts are produced and released in real time allows listeners and witnesses to send in evidence that can then be incorporated.

Adnan Syed
Adnan Syed, convicted of murder, in a case chronicled on the podcast Serial. Photograph: Barbara Haddock Taylor/AP

While making Sweet Bobby, “we kept getting calls from people who knew the perpetrator … giving us important information,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

But as well as uncovering new evidence and exposing flaws in police investigations, true crime series can also risk prejudicing future judicial processes.

In Dawson’s case, the former teacher’s lawyers argued it would be impossible to get a fair trial because of the reach of The Teacher’s Pet. The move to have the trial permanently stayed was rejected, but the judge said: “I am in no doubt that the … unrestrained and uncensored public commentary about the applicant’s guilt is the most egregious example of media interference with a criminal trial process which this court has had to consider in deciding whether to take the extraordinary step of permanently staying a criminal prosecution.”

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In the end, the trial was heard before a judge without a jury because of “real concerns” about prejudice due to the “nature” and “extremely wide distribution” of the podcast.

“It’s a real tangled web that podcast makers have to entertain,” said Mostrous.

Most true crime podcasts and documentaries focus on violent crimes committed by men against women – and women make up 73% of true crime podcast audiences, according to an academic study.

“A lot of these binge-worthy, long form true crime series are about the murder of a woman – and yet most don’t deal with thematics of violence against women, they don’t try to put violence against women in a wider social context,” Horeck said.

Most were about murder, she said, “but we’re starting to see more shows that are investigating sexual violence, crimes that previously wouldn’t have been part of the true crime machine. That’s a positive development.”

The fact that most true crime documentaries highlight failings by police and prosecutors can result in defensiveness and antagonism by those agencies. But there is also a growing realisation that podcast techniques can assist in real life investigations. Police routinely use social media to appeal for help in catching criminals, and ask the public to send in dashcam and mobile phone footage that may be of use.

And, said Horeck, some police forces in the US are even starting to create their own podcast investigations. “It’s like: if you can’t beat them, join them.”

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