Roundtable: Setting standards for true crime

Koulla Anastasi, Tom Barry, Fozia Khan and Guy Davies were among a group of senior execs brought together by Ian Lamarra to share their thoughts on how best to protect and support contributors.

When Alaska TV ventured into the red-hot true-crime genre via ITV’s Return To Dunblane With Lorraine Kelly and In The Footsteps Of Killers for Channel 4, co-founder and creative director Ian Lamarra was surprised by the lack of standard duty-of-care templates.

There is plenty of guidance for the casting and supporting of reality TV contestants, for filming intimate scenes in drama, and multiple best practice bibles for filming during Covid, but relatively little to support those making shows about “the worst day of someone’s life”, as Lamarra puts it.

Claire Posner (left) & Koulla Anastasi

“Potentially, we’ve got a perfect storm of high demand for the genre, a squeezing of budgets and people coming through who don’t have any previous experience of making these types of shows, which have complex duty-of-care needs,” he says.

In a bid to tackle these challenges, Lamarra co-ordinated a meeting of producers, commissioners and compliance specialists at ITN’s headquarters to discuss whether and how the industry should shape a collective approach to the genre.

“If there isn’t good practice, it will just end up being a race to the bottom”
Koulla Anastasi, Woodcut Media

For Koulla Anastasi, commercial director at The Killer Within indie Woodcut Media, some sort of resource is essential. “There are so many production companies operating in this space that, if there isn’t good practice, it will just end up being a race to the bottom,” she says.

But while everyone at the meeting broadly agrees that a resource is needed, the shape it should take remains unclear. “There’s a difference between resources, rules and guidelines,” says ITN Productions managing director of television Ian Rumsey. “I wouldn’t want responsible producers to not be able to make programmes because they’re so rigidly bound by a set of rules that prohibits empathetic, sensitive storytelling.”

Good practice on crime content starts with attempts to gain access to the story’s protagonists. When is it right to approach potential contributors such as the victim or their family? And how essential is it to secure their participation, or at least their consent?

Marcel Theroux

Freelance documentary film-maker Marcel Theroux thinks producers are more likely to get commissions if they approach relatives beforehand, and Channel 4 commissioning editor for factual Will Rowson agrees. He probably wouldn’t engage with producers who hadn’t secured access and established a level of trust beforehand – particularly when multiple teams are pursuing the same story.

But Mark Proctor says his company, Married To A Psychopath producer Big Little Fish, has a policy of not approaching a victim’s family until it receives solid interest from a channel, in case the show doesn’t end up being commissioned. “In that situation, you could be opening up old wounds and ultimately telling them: ‘Nobody wants to hear your story’,” he says.

Instead, his company prefers to develop a crime format and show commissioners examples of the crimes it could cover and its planned approach, in order to gauge interest.

Sadly, as Mike Blair, head of documentaries at The Murder Of Logan Mwangi producer MultiStory Media acknowledges, there are also production companies “willing to engage in sharper practices”, even when dealing with bereaved families.

Ian Lamarra

Lamarra recalls developing stories for a Channel 4 show and being told by the mother of a murdered child that she was being constantly hassled by TV crews, with one AP instructed to move into the village and knock on her door every day until she agreed to tell her story. “What can you do to stop that if everyone’s running around trying to get the same access?” he asks.

Lamarra has spoken with the Film and TV Charity about setting up a support hotline for families being harassed by media, but says it’s probably beyond the remit of regulators such as Ofcom, which only deals with concerns post-broadcast.

While it may be difficult to stop harassment, Rumsey argues that commissioners have a responsibility to refuse to order shows from producers if they become aware of such bad behaviour.

Guy Davies

Channel 5 commissioning editor of factual Guy Davies stresses that some contributors welcome an approach from TV companies and that vulnerable people have the right to tell their stories too – even if they are horrific.

“The process may be difficult, but also cathartic for them. But we also have to be careful we don’t go too far down the road and then end up not telling their stories,” he says.

Often, a good relationship with a police force can be key for an indie, helping it “explain to the broadcaster how you might be able to unlock further access”, says Blair. But Anastasi says that isn’t always possible: “If [the project] doesn’t present the police in a good light, then they will probably say no.”

Anastasi adds that campaign groups and victim support groups can be supportive in sharing positive TV experiences with others, although Blair warns that the reverse can also happen.

Ian Rumsey

Rumsey points out that while it’s not always possible to get the full involvement of families, getting their blessing to make the show eases the path to sourcing contributions from the police and elsewhere.

For example, he says, the town of Soham will not generally speak to the press about the murders of 10-year-olds Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in 2002. But for ITN Productions’ 20th anniversary doc Soham: The Murder Of Holly & Jessica for C5, his team approached the families and spent a long time talking to them.

Although the families ultimately declined to participate, they understood the film-makers’ motivations. “So they trusted us to make it,” says Rumsey. “It comes down to taking the time to do things properly.”

ITN communicated with the families “at every step of the production process”, says Rumsey, as well as informing them of the TX date, even though they weren’t directly involved.

But whose responsibility is it to look after the long tail of true-crime films beyond TX, as they sit in online content libraries? For example, if a production company closes down after the initial broadcast, it may mean the line of contact to the families goes with it. ITV director of legal and content compliance Claire Posner says this can complicate repeat broadcasts.

“The broadcaster usually isn’t in a position to do [appropriate notifications] because we don’t have the contacts – so you’re left with a programme you can’t re-show,” she says.

There should be co-ordination between the producer and commissioner according to Fozia Khan, unscripted lead at Amazon Prime Video UK.

Tom Barry & Mark Proctor

For C5’s Davies, there needs to be “a clear line of accountability at exec level” to ensure families of victims continue to be supported.

While it might not be practical to do this for every show, smaller indies, or those making a single film, Proctor suggests producers of crime content designed with box-set levels of longevity should consider showing contributors the content before it goes out.

“We made a show for Channel 4 and sent a final cut out to all the families who featured – even the families who weren’t in it, but with whom we’d spoken during the making of the show. We made steps to amend [the content] from notes that came back, which stated that something wasn’t factually accurate or caused them further harm and distress.”

“We show films to contributors in advance as a matter of course”
Mike Blair, MultiStory Media

Having taken that approach, Proctor is comfortable with the programme being available to view well after TX, “unless something new happens”.

According to Blair, MultiStory shows films to contributors in advance “as a matter of course” and for ITV shows like Code Blue, “we might lose five or six cases for every one we’re able to make”.

Will Rowson

There’s a clear need for producers and broadcasters to be across every single aspect of a true-crime show’s timeline – and that includes marketing, PR and promo. Lamarra highlights this point by recalling a conversation with a parent who said they saw their daughter’s face on an advert on the side of a bus, with a TX date in a blood font.

Posner’s team at ITV signs off all true-crime marketing assets from launch campaigns to social media – whether it’s from scripted or unscripted. She says they will “regularly pull things back” over inappropriate imagery, fonts and even music.

However, Khan warns it can be hard to stop social assets from becoming reframed, and suggests there is more work to be done there.

Supporting the crew

Making films about tragedies can affect more than just the contributors. Lamarra says he witnessed first-hand the impact on crews and talent when he was filming in Dunblane. “True crime has become so commissionable – there are hundreds of hours of it – and you might be hiring crew to cover a murder story who last year worked on Bake Off,” he says.

Mike Blair

Woodcut, which has a huge true-crime slate, offers counselling for staff and crew who have worked on the genre for more than three months. Plus, Anastasi says: “For their next jobs, we generally rotate them onto genres that aren’t quite so traumatic.”

But there remains concern around the onboarding of new and junior staff members who, Khan points out, may feel the need to prove themselves in the industry and so might not feel able to speak out.

C5’s Davies says he holds Zoom meetings with entire production teams, inviting any of them to contact him directly if they have concerns.

Proctor wonders whether broadcasters need to go further, requiring staff to check in with a psychologist, “even if it’s just a five-minute call”. He says: “Producers are often quite stoic in my experience, but for junior members of the team, or those coming in new, it could be helpful.”

Acknowledging the skills shortage, particularly in production management (which traditionally implements duty-of-care policies), Proctor and Sky documentary and factual commissioner Tom Barry wonder if duty of care should also be tied into training.

But at a time when production costs are soaring, there is the perennial question of who should foot the bill. To some extent, the UK’s terrestrial broadcasters appear amenable to creating lines in the budget to support duty of care in true crime – and in some instances, the money’s already there.

This is the case at C5, Davies confirms, crediting in-house duty-of-care officer Caroline O’Dwyer for pushing it through. “It’s certainly not the biggest item in the budget,” says Davies. “But when it comes to certain stories, there’s a good reason to argue that it needs to be there.”

Lamarra points out how quickly the industry came together to add a Covid line to the budget and hopes it will be able to do something similar for true-crime duty of care.

Beyond that, there’s a sense in the room that if action isn’t taken or guidelines created, then a scandal might well erupt that could have repercussions for trust in the genre. As Blair says: “You never want that scandal to be on one of your own shows.”


Koulla Anastasi, commercial director, Woodcut Media
Tom Barry, commissioning editor for documentary and factual, Sky
Mike Blair, head of documentaries & current affairs, MultiStory Media
Guy Davies, commissioning editor, factual, Channel 5 and Paramount +
Fozia Khan, unscripted lead, Amazon Prime Video UK
Ian Lamarra, co-founder and creative director, Alaska TV
Claire Posner, director of legal and content compliance, ITV
Mark Proctor, chief executive, Big Little Fish
Will Rowson, commissioning editor for factual, Channel 4
Ian Rumsey, managing director, television, ITN Productions
Marcel Theroux, freelance film-maker