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The true-crime dilemma: ‘Family of people who have been harmed could hear these stories’

Phoebe Judge and Lauren Spohrer, who are bringing their Criminal podcast to Ireland this week, set out to go beyond sensationalism in their reporting

True crime’s fingerprints are everywhere. Scandalous stories of murder and betrayal dominate Netflix’s most-watched lists. The genre gave podcasting its first global blockbuster, in Serial, which has clocked up hundreds of millions of downloads since it was released, in 2014. Bookstores groan under the weight of true-crime tell-alls; the medium has been satirised by the Disney+ comedy-thriller Only Murders in the Building and condemned as exploitative by the dystopian sci-fi anthology Black Mirror. In 2024, a milieu obsessed with death has never been so alive.

The degree to which true crime can get under your skin is sometimes unnerving. I discovered this on a visit to Bantry last month. Sitting in a coffee shop in the west Cork town, I exchanged emails with an editor about a piece on this very subject. I suggested we should touch on the circus that sprang up around the murder in Schull, in 1996, of the French film producer Sophie Toscan du Plantier. It is an event that, among many other things, has so far inspired a hit podcast and two streaming documentaries.

Email sent, I went to the counter to pay. A figure loomed beside me, from whom issued a rumbling voice I immediately recognised. It was Ian Bailey, the chief suspect in the case. Addressing a visibly spooked waitress, he asked for the dessert menu – “the sweets” menu, as he called it, in his florid style. (I wasn’t earwigging; you couldn’t not hear him.) Two weeks later he had a fatal heart attack.

I’d never met Bailey, though there was a near-miss when the former journalist once reportedly turned up at an NUJ meeting for freelances in Cork a few years after Toscan du Planter’s killing. He had sat on one side of the room, everyone else on the other. But I was familiar with his distinctive voice from the West Cork podcast and, later, the Netflix documentary Sophie: A Murder in West Cork and Jim Sheridan’s Murder at the Cottage: The Search for Justice for Sophie. Now he was standing next to me – a reminder that true-crime stories are not gory fantasias but very real events featuring real people.


True crime is not a monolith, of course. Some of it is cynical and manipulative. Consider Netflix’s The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann, which stretched the story of the three-year-old’s disappearance from a Portuguese holiday apartment in 2007 into an exhausting eight hours. Every conspiracy theory associated with the case received an airing; there were digressions into tourism in the Algarve and operational differences between police in Portugal and in Spain. Despite being the streamer’s most-watched release of 2019, it was a whole lot of nothing.

But then there is Criminal, the award-winning true-crime podcast hosted from North Carolina by Phoebe Judge, which brings humanity and empathy to the subject – and which marks its 10th anniversary with a tour that includes a stop in Ireland this week.

Criminal tells stories from around the world and from every strand of life. In a 2016 episode called Melinda and Judy, Judge and her producer, Lauren Spohrer, shared the moving tale of Melinda Dawson and her fight to clear the name of her husband after he was charged with the murder of Dawson’s adoptive mother. The equally shocking Money Tree episode reported on Axton Betz-Hamilton, whose identity was stolen by the person she least expected when she was a student.

They’ve reported on Ireland, too. Last year, in The Magdalene Laundries, Judge and Spohrer sensitively interviewed the Magdalene survivor Elizabeth Coppin and interviewed the sons of Ena McEntee, who in 1963 rescued 15 young women from a laundry on Forster Street in Galway and was subsequently awarded the freedom of the city.

The Magdalene laundries have been covered widely by the global press – with mixed results. Last year, for instance, the BBC’s appalling drama series The Woman in the Wall turned the suffering of the Magdalene women into a hysterical tale of bumbling Irish peasants. It was Father Ted meets Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Criminal’s take was different: it passed the crucial test of ringing true to a listener from Ireland. There was no condescension; Judge and Spohrer avoided the pitfall of portraying pre-1990s Ireland as uniformly backward and God-fearing. There was room for nuance.

“We live in North Carolina, and a lot of people will say things like, ‘Oh, it’s so refreshing to hear southern accents on your show.’ I find a lot of media regard their interview subjects as a ‘type’,” says Spohrer. “We really have never operated that way: it’s disturbing that some journalists just shrink someone’s existence down to some cliche.”

They started the Criminal podcast in January 2014. Ten months later, the first episode of Serial dropped, and the entire world seemingly became obsessed with its story of Adnan Syed and his conviction for the murder, in 1999, of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee.

The people we speak to are ready to tell their stories and want to tell their stories, and haven’t been strong-armed into it

Serial is very different in style from Criminal – the defining quality of Judge and Spohrer’s podcast is its empathy. Still, they immediately noted the “Serial effect” and the rapid growth in the true-crime audience. But this didn’t affect the way they told their stories. They were always clear about how they wanted to approach sensitive subjects of death and suffering, guilt and innocence.

“We made a decision early on that we weren’t ever going to be in the business of forcing someone to tell us their story,” Judge says. “If you have to convince someone to talk to us it probably means they’re not ready to talk, and maybe will be a little reticent in how they tell their story. We made that decision early on – if someone wanted to talk to us, we would be so glad about that. If they didn’t, we would tell them that if they ever changed their mind we’d be happy to talk to them. That’s been important – it’s what has made the conversations so complete and so open. The people we speak to are ready to tell their stories and want to tell their stories, and haven’t been strong-armed into it.”

Criminal doesn’t serve up cheesy thrills. Sometimes the listener is invited to consider, from a philosophical perspective, the nature of the criminal and crime up for discussion. In the Magdalene Laundries episode, the “criminal” could be the religious orders, the State or even Ena McEntee and her family, who had to help the fugitive women evade the Garda in order to reach the UK safely. The effect of all this is to plant a seed in listeners’ minds and encourage them to consider how we think about crime in the first place.

“We both came to this idea that we don’t believe in evil. And we don’t believe that people are ‘bad’. We believe that people do horrible things and get themselves in terrible situations,” Spohrer says. “The only thing we wanted to do was to try to figure out why people do the things they do. To not judge what they’ve done. Or not come up with a conclusion: ‘Well, you’re clearly bad.’ But, rather, to figure out how people get themselves in these situations. And, in doing that, allow our listeners to have empathy with people whose experiences look incredibly different than theirs. When stripped down and allowed to hear the story with no judgment, one might be able to figure out a little bit more about the way things work.”

True crime is often accused of cashing in on the suffering of innocent people. Families of the victims of the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer criticised Ryan Murphy’s Netflix series about the murderer, which they said had traumatised them all over again. In the Black Mirror episode Loch Henry, a naive young film-maker turns his family’s gory story into a documentary – only to end up alone and hollowed out. Black Mirror’s creator, Charlie Brooker, had watched a “BBC true-crime thing about something awful that had happened in Scotland”. It began, he said, with a gorgeous establishing shot. “But this particular one was really leaning into how beautiful the landscape was. Because they love to do that, right? ‘Look at the beauty’ – and then they’ll cut to someone lying dead on the floor.”

Many podcasts try to tread softly. “I would hope that the majority, like myself, approach this very sensitive topic with the utmost respect and due diligence, and not sensationalise the story or exploit the victim or their family,” says Nules Ní Chleirigh, who hosts the Ireland Crimes and Mysteries podcast. “It’s a fine line between exploitation and education. You just have to ensure you don’t cross that line. I think most people can tell the difference about who is genuine and who is not.”

The desire to go beyond sensationalism was one of the motivations when Judge and Spohrer started Criminal. “We have thought about this since before episode one,” Spohrer says. “We don’t comment on other shows. But I can say that when we started the show, we looked at how crime was described on television. We were feeling it was insensitive and sensational and inappropriate. We thought there must be a better way to approach this.

“From the outset, the show was designed to be about human beings. We ask ourselves why are we putting this detail in front of our audience, and then we’ll say, ‘Let’s take it out.’ We take very seriously the reality that family members or friends of people who have been harmed could hear these stories. And we have no interest in causing any harm at all. We keep our heads down. We do the best work we can. And we don’t worry about what other people are doing.”

Criminal: A Podcast About Crime is at the National Concert Hall, in Dublin, on Thursday, February 22nd