Judge Rinder: Dramatising criminal behaviour is good for us

True crime isn’t just fascinating – it can educate us and give us a real sense of what took place, beyond the headlines

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As a lawyer who’s worked as a barrister in the criminal courts, I might, you’d think, be bored with crime. But like the rest of the country I’m in the grip of a real-life crimewave. From dramas such as The Moorside, about the real case of the fake kidnapping of Shannon Matthews, to Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer, true crime TV is booming.

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But is the rise in true crime a sign we’ve become more morbid? Do we have an unhealthy obsession with “evil”? Not at all. The public hasn’t become more base or macabre, we’ve always been fascinated by crime and now there are simply more channels and ways to watch it so more of these shows are being made. Serious crime is in many ways the ultimate and most profound drama and it goes back to Greek tragedy – after all, Medea killed her children and we’re still putting that play on stages across the world.

But true crime isn’t just fascinating, it’s actually good for us – it can educate us and give us a real sense of what took place, beyond the headlines. Making a Murderer got people asking questions about the fairness of trial procedures and triggered important questions about funding lawyers. Learning about crime in great detail forces us to ask ourselves how it happened, how the victims and perpetrators got to that point, how the law works, how the police force functions. We experience criminal law mainly through the prism of dramas where the killer is caught, everyone’s happy at the end and we don’t hear from the victim.

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The Moorside

On TV, the nitty-gritty of trials takes place between commercial breaks whereas, of course, reality is infinitely more complex. True crime also makes us more empathetic. It touches upon basic questions of humanity. Could we be compelled to do something really wicked? How are puzzles solved? How do we discern between lies and truth? What are the emotional impacts, what if that happened to me?

As a lawyer I’ve dealt with really serious offences and the public rarely hear what the true impact is on the victims’ families. When you hear it from the mouths of victims your entire approach changes, because it could happen to anybody, and they articulate that in such a powerful way.

Is it exploitative to get the victim of an unimaginably horrific crime to talk on my show Crime Stories? No, it’s crucial. Mick and Mairead Philpott were jailed in 2013 after setting their home ablaze, killing their six children between the ages of five and 13.

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Making a Murderer

One of Mick’s sons, Michael, who did not live there, gives an interview on my programme. He wasn’t killed in the fire, but he’s a victim not only because he’s lost his family, but also he may have inherited shame, or huge difficulty coming to terms with what his family member has done, asking himself incredibly difficult questions like, “What does that mean about me as a human?”

Good-quality true crime gives him an opportunity to explain the ripple effects of a crime like that and gives us an insight into the aftermath, beyond our perceptions or judgements.

There will always be a place for Miss Marple to rock up to a village and solve a case, but we also need to see the real face of crime beyond the headlines. Shows like Little Boy Blue or Serial aren’t just an excuse for gripping drama, they help us to better understand victims, perpetrators and the judicial system. 

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Judge Rinder’s Crime Stories is on Monday to Friday at 2pm on ITV