'Baby Reindeer': Woman who claims to be inspiration for Martha threatens defamation suit. Legal experts weigh in.

Defamation lawyers say that Fiona Harvey may have a case, but so does Netflix.

Richard Gadd, behind the bar at left, and Jessica Gunning, seated at the bar, star in the Netflix hit
Richard Gadd and Jessica Gunning star in the Netflix hit Baby Reindeer. (Ed Miller/Netflix)

Netflix’s surprise hit Baby Reindeer is raising questions after the real-life inspiration for one of its lead characters is threatening to sue the streamer and its creator for defamation.

The seven-episode series is billed as a “true story” by both Netflix and British actor Richard Gadd, who wrote, starred in and co-produced the screen adaptation. Based on Gadd’s one-man show of the same name, it tells the story of a struggling comedian (Gadd) who is stalked and terrorized by a woman named Martha (Jessica Gunning). Since its debut on April 11, the show has garnered nearly 19 million views globally and been the most-watched English-language show on Netflix for four consecutive weeks.

Things took a turn on April 26, when the Daily Mail published an anonymous interview with the woman who claims she inspired Martha. On May 9 she revealed herself as Fiona Harvey in a sit-down interview with Piers Morgan, during which she denied ever harassing Gadd and and threatened to sue Netflix and the creator for defamation. Since the interview aired on his YouTube channel, Morgan said he thinks Harvey wasn’t being honest about certain facts in the interview.

Harvey’s interview brought to light the implications of adapting true stories, especially when the real-life people involved dispute how they are portrayed.

A down-on-his luck comedian, Donny Dunn (Gadd), is working at a bar in London when a female patron named Martha becomes obsessed with him. Giving Donny the pet name “Baby Reindeer,” she starts emailing, texting and leaving threatening voicemails that terrorize him and his family. Donny soon discovers that Martha isn’t the successful lawyer she claims to be but rather a criminal who has served prison time for stalking victims in the past.

Jessica Gunning, seated and holding a menu, as Martha in
Jessica Gunning as Martha in Baby Reindeer. (Ed Miller/Netflix)

Gadd says the story is ‘emotionally true’

In an interview with the Guardian, Gadd said all the events were “emotionally true. … I was severely stalked and severely abused.” But he added that timelines, names and certain accounts in the series were “tweaked slightly” for dramatic effect.

Gadd alleges that Harvey sent over 41,000 emails, left roughly 350 hours of voicemails and wrote him hundreds of social posts. The events are believed to have happened between 2013 and 2017, based on timelines that he has referenced over the years since he first staged the one-man show in 2019.

Neither Gadd nor Netflix responded to Yahoo Entertainment’s requests for comment.

Richard Gadd  in front of the camera on the street in
Gadd in Baby Reindeer. (Ed Miller/Netflix)

In her interview with Morgan, Harvey said any implication that she stalked Gadd is “simply not true.” She claims she “never” contacted him by phone and sent him “less than 10” emails.

“I’m not a stalker. I’ve not been to jail; I’ve not got injunctions,” Harvey told Morgan, saying neither Netflix nor Gadd spoke with her before the series was released. She also threatened to sue for defamation and claims to be a target of online hate because of her depiction on the show.

Yahoo Entertainment was unable to reach Harvey for comment.

Soon after Baby Reindeer premiered in April, internet sleuths falsely accused TV writer Sean Foley of being the inspiration for the character Darrien, a real-life sexual abuser depicted in the series by Tom Goodman-Hill. Gadd later took to social media to post a request to fans: “Please don't speculate on who any of the real-life people could be. That's not the point of our show.”

On May 8, Benjamin King, Netflix’s senior director of public policy in the U.K. and Ireland, addressed British Parliament at a hearing with its Culture, Media and Sport Committee about the company’s safeguarding standards, saying the company and producer Clerkenwell Films took “every reasonable precaution in disguising the real-life identities of the people involved in that story.”

He added that Baby Reindeer is “obviously a true story of the horrific abuse” experienced by Gadd.

Harvey can file a lawsuit in California if she proves that Netflix knowingly distributed lies about her on the show — but the streamer has a strong counterargument, legal experts said.

“Netflix could argue that no one would have understood the series to be about [Harvey] until she came forward and outed herself,” Los Angeles-based defamation lawyer Jeff Lewis told Yahoo. “Netflix may argue she harmed herself or at least failed to mitigate damages by going on Piers Morgan.”

Texas lawyer Brian Beckcom believes that Harvey stands a “much better chance” of winning a defamation case in the U.K. than in the U.S.

“The First Amendment to the Constitution protects free speech in the U.S., and the U.K. does not have a similar Constitutional rule,” he explained. “In the U.S., in order to win a defamation case, you must prove that what the other person said was false, they knew it, and they said it anyway, on purpose. In the U.K., by contrast, the person publishing the statement must prove it was true, or based on a good faith belief.”