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How true crime producers are addressing the ethics

By Kate Beal, chair of the Association of True Crime Producers (ATCP) and founder/ceo of Woodcut Media


This time last year I set up a video call with a small group of like-minded producers, all who had a strong track record in producing true crime in the UK. It was around the time that sadly mum of two, Nicola Bulley, disappeared, and the internet had gone into overdrive following this ‘live’ true crime mystery. As we know the family faced heartbreak when her body was found… and we as an industry looked at ourselves wondering if the grim coverage of this woman’s death was in part made worse by our programming.

I’m grateful that the producers who initially came together were all thinking along the same lines. They all loved the true crime genre but, like me, were conscious of the need to communicate with each other as production continued to increase. There was a genuine worry that the popularity of the genre was having a negative impact on both victims of these terrible crimes and production teams telling their stories. The UK is home to some of the leading true crime production companies in the world. It was up to us to lead the way.

As a collective we spoke about ethics and how practically we could help each other and advise those new to the genre. It was at that point we decided to form an association – a group of producers with the same ethical goals. Now, admittedly it took a little courage for us all to join forces. Natural frenemies suddenly put aside our rivalries to collaborate. We all had led production companies and had the TV egos to match! However, this project was clearly so important to our genre and industry that it became quite easy to put our egos aside to work for the common good. Like all good associations we formed a committee, meetings were set and an agenda produced.

The first step for the founding producers of the ATCP was to create a set of workable guidelines for us and others to follow. These are 13 clear principles to follow where practically possible, covering everything from dealing with victim’s families, to compliance while filming, to the mental health of the production team. On the surface these 13 points look simple, but in reality each one takes time, research and commitment on behalf of the production team. They were carefully crafted and debated before finally locking them in stone.

We took a deep breath when we launched in the summer of 2023. Would the industry react in a positive way to us suggesting yet more guidelines, paperwork and ultimately more money spent? Did people share our concerns? Thankfully they did and the positive feedback was instantaneous. In fact, we were quite overwhelmed by the offers of support. New membership applications came in from the UK and internationally. The press overall was enormously positive.

It was an odd moment… a little like giving birth. You spend your time preparing for the big launch. Then it happens and you realise that this isn’t just about one day… this is simply the beginning. As a group, we realised that what we had created was tapping into the industry zeitgeist. There was a need for our guidelines but perhaps more importantly there was a need for a safe space for producers to talk about tough subjects. The true crime genre was ever evolving and as production companies we needed to keep talking, learning and sharing best practice. The ATCP is an ideal way to achieve this.

We were thrilled that other respected production companies from the UK and across the world asked to become members. Wanting to sign up to our guidelines and proudly display our logo as experienced producers in the genre. Others came to us simply for advice to help steer them in the right direction as they embarked on their true crime journey. This felt great – the guidelines were there for the world to access and it was happening.

As an organisation we realised that we needed to keep sharing best practice and growing. It wasn’t simply about signposting on our website, so the committee started planning events. It’s incredible that we’re only eight months in and we’ve had three members events already. All with the purpose to give a place for true crime production teams to learn and chat. We kicked off with a webinar from the Film and TV Charity who took us through The Whole Picture Toolkit and our most recent event was a session on vicarious trauma with Camilla Wells. We have a whole programme of online and in person events lined up for the rest of the year and I know that they will be well attended. The need is there.

Crucially, we got a very positive response from the broadcasters and platforms we work with. They’ve openly supported our work by adding their logo to our website which shows they stand by our ethical approach to the genre. In addition, they’ve been very keen to get actively involved and our next webinar will be a roundtable involving the networks in the discussions. TV is a team business and the broadcasters are our partners in this endeavour. It’s been great to hear that the commissioners are pointing producers to our guidelines and one has even taken the step to put it into their contracts. An incredible endorsement after just eight months.

Most importantly, and the reason for the coming together of like-minded producers, is the fact that the ATCP is making a difference in our day-to-day activities. A significant amount of true crime programming is now being produced under ATCP guidelines.

Recent examples include: Title Role’s Truth or Dare, a feature doc for Channel 5 about the devastating house fire that killed step grandmother, Mary Gregory; First Look’s eight part series for UKTV, Red Flag featuring the stories of women whose lives have been torn apart by their lover; and Phoenix Television’s Cut to the Crime for Crime & Investigation, a mid–form series in which hairdresser James Busby’s salon is transformed into a true crime confessional, from which survivors, reformed perpetrators, and professionals confide their deepest, darkest secrets to the master hairdresser. All this content was delivered using the best practice laid out by the guidelines in contributor care, factual accuracy and production team wellbeing.

In the UK we produce hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of true crime each year. We’re market leaders and our true crime travels to every territory across the globe. It is reassuring to know that we are leading the way in introducing an ethical standard into this ever-popular genre. Sometimes it’s difficult to achieve on a tight schedule and it does add layers onto an already busy production… but it’s worth it. We are telling the stories of the worst day of people’s lives and we owe it to them to show the respect the guidelines gives them. It is vital to protect the victims, families, and production teams. The genre of true crime is here to stay… and so is the ATCP.