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Woman claiming to be real-life Martha from 'Baby Reindeer' sues Netflix for defamation

The series, which shot to the top of Netflix's charts, portrays Martha as a convicted stalker. Fiona Harvey says it's all lies.
Richard Gadd, Jessica Gunning
Posted at 8:34 PM, Jun 07, 2024

A woman who claims the stalker character Martha in "Baby Reindeer" was modeled after her has sued Netflix, claiming the streaming company's recent hit series was defamatory and has ruined her life since its release.

Set in 2015, "Baby Reindeer" tells the "true story" of its writer and creator Richard Gadd, who also stars in the show as the lead character, a failing comedian/daytime bartender named Donny Dunn.

While working at a London pub one day, Dunn gives a free cup of tea to a distraught character named Martha, played by Jessica Gunning. The character soon becomes Dunn's stalker: visiting the pub daily, sending tens of thousands of emails, smashing a bottle over his head, gouging his eyes with her thumbs, sexually assaulting him and more. She's eventually arrested and incarcerated in the series.

And even though Gadd, Gunning and the limited series' director have said the character is an inspiration existing outside the real-life story, Fiona Harvey says it wasn't enough, claiming her reputation as an "innocent" woman is now attached to that of the Martha character.

In her lawsuit, filed Thursday in federal court in Los Angeles, Harvey says the line in the first episode of "Baby Reindeer" saying, "This is a true story" is the "biggest lie in television history," designed to "get more attention, to make more money, and to viciously destroy" her life at a "magnitude and scale without precedent."

Defamatory lies that Harvey claims "Baby Reindeer' made about her through Martha include that she was ever convicted of a crime, that she ever sexually assaulted or attacked Gadd, or even that she ever stalked him or a police officer, which is also a plotline of the series.

The plaintiff claims the lies continued on Netflix's website tudum.com, which again states "Baby Reindeer" is a "true story," as well as in the House of Commons, where Netflix executive Benjamin King was asked about the duty of care for the real-life Martha. King, per the lawsuit, said Netflix took "every reasonable precaution" to disguise the real identities of people "whilst striking a balance with the veracity and authenticity of the story."

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But Harvey claims it was easy for viewers to attach her to the character. In the suit, she says it boiled down to a "vaguely sexual" line Martha says in the series and is repeated in jest in some emails the characters sends to Dunn stating, "All I need now is for someone to hang my curtains." In real life, Harvey points to a tweet she posted in 2014 that mentioned Gadd's account and said, "my curtains need hung badly."

She also says viewers' identification of her days after the "Baby Reindeer" release was "easy" because Netflix "insufficiently disguised" her as the inspiration, noting her similarities to Martha include their "uncanny resemblance" and that they're both female Scottish lawyers 20 years older than Gadd.

The plaintiff states this also helped British media identify her soon after the show's release. Harvey gave a televised interview to journalist Piers Morgan about a month after the show came out.

Harvey's suit says the publicity from the series has "tormented" her and manifested into anxiety, nightmares, extreme stress, fear of leaving the house and more. She's seeking at least $170 million in the suit, which claims defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence, gross negligence and violations of her right of publicity.

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

The seven-episode show quickly became one of Netflix's most popular series to date after its April release. Since then, Gadd has urged viewers not to dig into who the characters could have been inspired by, writing on social media that speculation of their identities was "not the point of the show."

As for Ganning, she said in an interview with Variety that her portrayal of Martha did not include any knowledge of Gadd's real-life stalker.