Online sleuths: why are we obsessed with true crime?

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Saturday 28 October, Church House, London


The true-crime genre is a huge phenomenon. When news of Nicola Bulley’s disappearance in Lancashire went public earlier this year, online sleuths began filming and podcasting their own investigations around the crime scene. The popularity of podcasts like Serial or shows like Making a Murderer, which follow real cases, have inspired appeals and even overturned convictions.

Murder mysteries and crime fiction have long been popular. But instead of watching Columbo or reading your favourite Agatha Christie, the popularity of true crime seems to be centred around the ‘true’. Netflix is saturated with documentaries investigating the inner workings of humanity’s worst individuals. Millions of people indulge in tales of Fred West, the ‘Tiger King’ or Myra Hindley.

Some argue that our true-crime addiction is nothing more than a modern-day appreciation of a good whodunnit. Many fans of the genre favour stories of cold cases or wrongful convictions. Contrary to a morbid fascination with murder, some argue that raising awareness of such cases has led to corrections of justice. The Australian’s podcast The Teachers’ Pet was cited as helping to convict Chris Dawson for the murder of his wife Lynette. The podcast was so popular that it was taken down in case it unfairly influenced potential jurors and witnesses.

On the other hand, an obsession with true crime can blur the boundaries between fact and fiction. As it turned out, conspiratorial hypotheses about Bulley’s disappearance and police corruption turned out to be untrue, and many criticised true-crime fans for turning a tragic accident into a spectacle.

Does the popularity of true crime simply represent the latest chapter in humanity’s obsession with the macabre? Are we becoming desensitised to immorality by turning criminality into conspicuous consumption? Or is our fascination with the darker side of life a sign of our complex humanity? And if we all become armchair detectives, what are the consequences for law and order?

Sue Cook
broadcaster and novelist; former presenter of Out of Court, and CrimewatchUK, BBC TV

Dr Ruth Dudley Edwards
journalist; historian; crime novelist; broadcaster; awards include the Crime Writers’ Association Non-Fiction Gold Dagger for Aftermath: The Omagh Bombing and the Families’ Pursuit of Justice

Luke Gittos
criminal lawyer; author, Human Rights – Illusory Freedom; director, Freedom Law Clinic

Graham Wettone
retired police officer; author, How to be a Police Officer; policing commentator

Max Sanderson
senior editor, audio, Guardian