True crime podcasts have never been more popular
It’s not many people’s idea of fun to sit across the table from a murder suspect. And indeed, as Sam Bungey and Jennifer Forde sipped tea in Ian Bailey’s home, they couldn’t help but feel uneasy.
But they were determined to get to the bottom of the crime.
Creators of the enormously popular West Cork podcast, the husband and wife team journeyed to the west coast of Ireland to investigate the unsolved murder of French woman Sophie Toscan du Plantier in 1996.
When they arrived in the small town of Toormore, where Sophie was killed, the pair might have expected the man accused of her gruesome murder to be reticent to talk to them.
But instead he welcomed them into his home and talked for hours about the case.
“When we created the podcast, we were trying to answer our own questions about why the investigation had stalled for so many years,” says Sam. “This case has been dogged by false rumours, often amplified by the media, as well as a suspect who hogs the limelight.”
At the time of the murder, Ian was the main suspect for the Irish police, but he was never charged.
In 2019, he was convicted of Sophie’s murder in absentia in a French court and sentenced to 25 years, but remains in Ireland.
While France has made several attempts to extradite him, Ireland’s High Court ruled against it because there was no proof beyond reasonable doubt. The West Cork podcast was the result of several hours of interviews with Ian, as well as interviews with more than 100 other people directly involved in the case.
The series became a cult hit and it’s success spawned two TV documentaries about the case on Netflix and Sky.
But despite its glowing reviews, its creators have mixed feelings about its popularity. “Crime journalism can be lurid and voyeuristic, so you have to ask hard questions about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it,” says Sam. “We took pains to be restrained in describing the crime itself and to not play amateur detectives.”
Jen Mellor is the kind of avid true crime fan hooked by podcasts like West Cork. She says: “A few years ago, if I’d told someone I was interested in true crime they’d probably have thought I was the kind of person who writes to serial killers in prison.
Jennifer’s podcast “It used to be a niche hobby, but now it’s hit the mainstream.” Jen, 40, is a blogger who lives in Nottingham. She listens to 40 hours of true crime content a week. She also subscribes to True Crime Detective Monthly and enjoys grisly magazines like Couples Who Kill. “I’ve always been interested to know why people do these awful things,” says Jen, who has a psychology degree.
“People want to know how others can sink so low as to commit such horrible crimes, like killing their whole family.”
Sophie Toscan du Plantier was killed in Ireland in 1996
The Soham murders in 2002 particularly piqued her interest. “I remember following the Ian Huntley case because it was around the time I became a mum,” she says. School caretaker Huntley killed schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman after they went missing from a family BBQ in Soham, Cambridgeshire.
“You could see it unfolding in the news and I became an armchair detective. I was watching the interviews, thinking: ‘He doesn’t look like he’s telling the truth’.”
Since then, her fascination has become an addiction.
“I love it when I find a case I haven’t heard of before,” says Jen. “Now there’s more true crime content than ever.”
Suruthi Bala, co-host of true crime podcast Red Handed, believes people’s fascination stems from fear. “People find the feeling of fear addictive. You can sit and listen to a podcast and for an hour or so, you’re in a totally different world, where gruesome things could happen.
“But then when you switch it off, you’re back to safety. People find that thrilling.”
She and her co-host Hannah Maguire have been podcasting for four years. The pair recently won the Listeners’ Choice category at the British Podcast Awards and won a publishing deal for a book out in September. She says their podcast surged in popularity during lockdown. “We have more listeners than ever,” says Hannah.
Red Handed sees the hosts researching crimes and chatting about them.
These days they read reams of books and old newspaper articles to get to the bottom of each case. After covering everything from the death of a young black man in prison, to drug cartel cases in America, they say there is a real appetite for grisly crimes. “For some reason, it’s the most gruesome cases which end up being the most popular episodes,” says Hannah.
Do they ever feel uneasy about the appetite for such crimes? Quite the opposite. “Sometimes people who have been involved in the cases contact us to thank us,” says Suruthi. But Kerry Daynes, a criminal psychologist and author of What Lies Buried: A Forensic Psychologist’s True Stories of Madness, the Bad and the Misunderstood, believes our obsession with true crime could go too far. “I definitely believe we should be more discerning about the true crime content we consume,” she says.
“There are a lot of supposed ‘experts’ who are under-qualified and have no real world experience but are happy to trot out inaccurate information and stereotypes.”
True crime is consumed largely by women – the audience for Red Handed is 86 per cent women, 63 percent of whom are aged between 19 and 25.
HIT… Sam and Jennifer’s podcast
And Kerry believes this comes from a deep-seated need for protection. “Women are more likely to fear becoming the victims of murder, so they believe that by watching and listening to true crime they are educating themselves and will be more equipped to keep themselves safe,” she explains. “But it gives them the false impression that danger is most likely to lurk outside and come from a lone weirdo.
“Sadly, women are most likely to be victims of physical or sexual violence by men that they know and in their own homes.”
For Sam and Jennifer, thorough investigation is the answer.
“When we made West Cork, we took a rigorous approach to the reporting,” says Sam.
“That’s really the only thing that you can do as documentary makers that properly serves the victim.”