In part one of The Vicarious Thrill of the Chase, I looked at how podcasts like The Missing Crytoqueen and Manhunt, Finding Kevin Parle draw us in to the real time hunt for missing fugitives. This post examines two other podcasts, Hunting Warhead and Where is George Gibney? Both involve the distressing subject of child sexual abuse; they are very sensitively handled, but in different ways. Where is George Gibney? tracks down Irish swim coach George Gibney who abused dozens of young swimmers in the 60’s 70’s and 80’s. in 1993, he was charged with 27 counts of indecent assault. But the Supreme Court granted a judicial review due to the amount of time that had passed since the alleged offences took place and the High Court subsequently stopped the charges going ahead; he disappeared soon afterwards. Presenter Mark Horgan says given the sensitive nature of the material, podcasting seemed an ideal way to tell the story of the hunt.
In an interview with the Irish Times, he explained “ I wanted to produce something which gave survivors a lot of time to tell their stories in depth – a platform where they could tell me every aspect of their story if they so wished. There would be no cameras, no crews, just me and my mic. Our aim was to get the truth out there to a bigger audience than ever before.”
On the publication day of the episode in which Mark confronts Gibney, I felt as though I was actually waiting in the car with him. The series developed organically as listeners who had been abused by Gibney contacted the producers. This adds to the sense of immediacy and lets the listener feel involved in the search. Where is George Gibney? is on hold for the moment but is due to resume.
Hunting Warhead follows an international team of police officers as they attempt to track down the people behind a massive child-abuse site on the dark web. Produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the Norwegian newspaper VG, Hunting Warhead differs from George Gibney in that the perpetrator, known as Warhead, had already been found before the series started. Presenter Daemon Fairless told me that was part of the challenge. “The artistic or craft pleasure in making this thing was figuring out put it together. My colleague, Chris Oak CBC is a very masterful story editor and has a very good sense of how to structure stories in a dramatic way to break them up into scenes that help pull people into the narrative.”
Daemon believes the reason true crime or manhunt podcasts are so popular is the thrill of the chase. “It is a traditional quest narrative in that you can take your listener on a quest in real time” he explained. “It appeals at a very basal level to how we understand the world and at a more superficial level I think that quest gives people a vicarious thrill.”
Daemon is also fascinated by human psychology - about what motivates people to do extreme things. “It's quite inconceivable that people do this, right? It would never occur to me to do any of the things that have been focused on, and I think it's really important to understand. So the second phase of investigation was more of an internal quest, like going inside Warhead’s head.” It turned out to be a very dark place indeed but the series did shed light on the issue of the huge number of men, estimated to be 1% worldwide, who are sexually attracted to children. This was something I explored with the Lucy Faithfull Foundation in my own podcast series, Pixels from a Crime Scene, made for the Internet Watch Foundation.
Now I understand the reasons for my enjoyment are rooted in a primal need to hunt, the thrill of the chase and the desire for justice, I can look forward to the next instalments without guilt. Where is George Gibney? resumes in December, and Daemon Fairless is planning series two of Hunting Warhead.
A full interview with Daemon Fairless will be available here soon
A quick flick through the podcasts I subscribe to will give you a clue about what I enjoy listening to most: Manhunt, Finding Kevin Parle, Hunting Warhead, The Missing Cryptoqueen and Where is George Gibney? They are all about real time manhunts – following the search for a criminal where the listeners do not know how it will end. In some cases, neither do the producers and presenters.
I am not alone in being in thrall to such series. Manhunt Finding Kevin Parle currently has nearly 3 million downloads. It is presented by Peter Bleksley, ex-Scotland Yard undercover detective and one of the original ‘hunters’ of the TV programme Hunted. The podcast follows Peter as he tracks down one of Britain’s most wanted criminals, who has been on the run for over 14 years. The series takes us from Liverpool to Spain, speaking to people who think they may have seen him. Just as Peter seemed to be getting close, the series was brought to an untimely halt by the Covid pandemic which prevented further travel.
The Missing Crytoqueen was also brought to a halt by Covid as the net seemed to be closing in. Dr Ruja Ignatova is a Bulgarian businesswoman who called herself the Crypotoqueen. She told people she had invented a cryptocurrency to rival Bitcoin and persuaded them to invest billions in OneCoin. The Times has described the scheme as "one of the biggest scams in history." In 2019 she was charged in her absence by U.S. authorities for wire fraud, securities fraud and money laundering. Presented by dark web expert Jamie Bartlett, this series also follows up leads which come in from the public as it rolls out. The series had actually ended when an anonymous tip off let Jamie know how close he had actually been to finding her.
Both Jamie Bartlett and Peter Bleksley have been the subject of less than subtle threats. “I've had pictures of my house posted on social media and on one occasion, a picture of my house with an accurate description of the bedroom that I sleep in,” Peter told me. “But I've lived in the witness protection programme with a constant threat of an assassin's bullet in the back of my head. I've come through that, not unscathed, but I came through all of that. And at the end of the day, I think he has lot more of the fear from me than I do from him. I'm a public figure albeit a Z-list personality, and I would be quite easy to assassinate if they wanted to do that. But if they did, they would merely be bringing a whole heap of unwanted attention upon themselves.”
Jamie Bartlett always hides his IP address when using his computer and when I met him, he was taping up the camera of his laptop and phone. This sense of fear is another reason why such podcasts are so popular: we feel the fear but are at a safe distance from it inside our headphones.
Peter Bleksley believes there is another explanation for the success of these series – people’s desire for right to win out. “The overwhelming majority of your audience want justice to prevail. It is about truth over lies, of right over wrong and seeing people held accountable. The sense of justice is central to our very being. We have to believe that justice will be done or else we might as all take up arms and exact our own summary retribution in a vigilante style upon anybody that wrongs us. And then what kind of world would we be living in then? Justice is absolutely central to our very being and plays a huge part in our psyche.”
To understand the psychology of why such series are so popular, I spoke to psychologist Kate Brierton. “I think it is about hooking in our drive system, our reward and motivational system,” she explained. “Programmes like that are all about seeking and finding something in real time. So it really pulls us in, and that is a tremendously powerful system. It's the system that, through evolution, we needed to be able to go out and hunt for food or seek shelter. I think programmes like that are almost addictive in that nature because you have a goal that you're trying to achieve. You want to find out the answer and when you do, very cleverly at the end of each episode, there might be another hook. So you find out information and you get a dopamine hit, which feels really good, but then there's always another question, another goal.”
In part two of this blog post, I will explore the attraction of two other hugely successful podcasts, Hunting Warhead and Where is George Gibney? We hear from Warhead presenter Daemon Fairless about how he followed an international team of police officers as they attempt to track down the people behind a massive child-abuse site on the dark web.
There will also be an opportunity to hear extended interviews withe Peter Bleksley and Daemon Fairless. You may have noticed that I used the trick Katie Brierton referred to in order to draw you in to the next post!
A brain tumour diagnosis, like all major events, can set in place a chain of emotions, among them anger, fear and denial. It can also make you adjust your priorities in life. I went through all this in 2015 when I discovered I had a Grade 1 benign posterior fossa meningioma. A resection at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge was very successful, leaving only a 3 mm residuum.
I had been having regular follow up scans, and in 2019, it was thought the growth was significant enough to consider radiotherapy. After the initial shock, I realised that, if successful, it would prevent the cells from growing again and remove the need for annual scans with the associated “scanxiety”. My decision to go ahead now rather than wait for symptoms to appear was influenced by the consultant radiologist Dr Sarah Jefferies who said the benefit of doing so now was that I was “young and fit”, a nice thing to hear at the age of 59.
As a journalist and podcast maker, I am used to getting to grips with a variety of subjects quickly in order to explain them to others. It dawned on me that if I could tell the story of my own treatment, it would give me a sense of control over a process in which one can easily feel helpless. It might also provide information and some light relief to other people going through something similar and their families. The radiotherapy process would be the same for people undergoing treatment for a variety of conditions, not just brain tumours, and so creating a podcast on this topic could reach and potentially help a large audience.
I am very optimistic by nature and I like to see the funny side of things. I believe that if you look closely, you can find humour in most situations. Consequently, I decided the title of the podcast should be “A Sense of Tumour”. I started recording everything that happened, whether by phone call – I had got all the kit I needed for doing this when lockdown started – or recording my own commentary during appointments and tests and arranging interviews, either face to face (with masks on) or via an audio recording platform.
People find podcasts in a variety of ways. One of those is to have a well-known personalty or influencer or support group post about them. It helps if you can interview a celebrity or two who will do this. When I asked Victoria Derbyshire (via a mutual friend) if she would talk to me about documenting her very public battle against breast cancer, I had no idea she would later be taking part in the TV programme “I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!”. Victoria appeared in Episode 1 and set the interview bar quite high. Luckily, the Brain Tumour Charity had come on board by this stage and offered to put me in touch with TV presenter Nicki Chapman, who had had a matching meningioma to mine removed last year. She readily agreed to be interviewed and candidly shared the highs and lows she experienced when going through treatment herself. For the final episode, I thought I would chance my luck and ask to speak to Tony Iommi, lead guitarist and song writer with Black Sabbath. He had had radiotherapy a few years ago and embraced some alternative therapies which I wanted to hear about. To my delight, he was more than willing to talk.
The series was meant to inform as well as entertain so I spoke to the medical professionals whom I was meeting and also those at the cutting edge of research into treatment. I interviewed to the Chair of Cancer Research UK, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, about funding for brain tumours. I also had conversations with the “distinguished scientist” from Elekta, one of the companies which makes the linear accelerator machine, not a bad job title, and to many people from the team at Addenbrooke’s, including a medical physicist and a research radiographer. I learned a lot and I hoped that sharing these conversations also would help listeners to understand some of the more complicated parts of the treatment and process more easily.
Bringing the podcast’s listeners on my journey was supposed to feel personal too. I recorded as much as I could at every stage, including the baseline neurological assessment. This is an IQ-style test carried out before the start of a course of radiotherapy to the brain so that if there is any concern about future cognitive function, there is a baseline against which to compare it. One part of the test included listing as many words as possible beginning with the letter F; you can imagine came to mind. When that episode was released, listeners I came across would shout out words beginning with F to me.
All the way through the treatment I was thinking how I would represent things aurally, such as the MRI machine. These make a variety of loud noises but would wreck any recording device in the vicinity. When I managed to open my eyes under the thermoplastic mask which holds the head in place on the linear accelerator, part of the machine going over me looked like a space ship. Friends and family had each contributed a song for my radiotherapy playlist; that day the song was Mr Blue Sky and it had got to the instrumental part, which made me think of a science fiction movie. I was working out how to recreate the impression for the podcast. Thinking about this during the session took my mind of what was going on.
By the time you read this, I will have finished the treatment and will be waiting for a scan to see how successful it has been. I am, of course, hoping for the best. I would also like to think that the podcast series has been useful to patients and their families, to radiotherapists, to manufacturers and anyone else involved in this fascinating process. I also hope that it inspires anyone looking for a positive and creative way of dealing with a diagnosis of any kind to take control of what they can, focus on something meaningful and use their good days to bring strength to others. After all, positivity radiates. Angela Young founded Cambridge Podcasts in 2018 to help clients showcase their expertise and establish themselves as the go-to person in their field. She is a former BBC radio journalist who has worked as a reporter, producer, news reader and news editor. She has taught law and journalism at the BBC and media handling at the prestigious Institute for Management Development in Lausanne. She studied law at Cambridge as a mature student and has lived in the city for 28 years.
Podcasting is a wide genre which ranges from the casual and conversational through to the broadcast quality documentary. When I was commissioned by the Internet Watch Foundation to produce Pixels from a Crime Scene, I knew it would have to be at the high end of the scale. Anything less would not have done justice to the subject matter and the people involved.
IWF Chief Executive Susie Hargreaves commissioned six half hour episodes that would explore the dark world of online child sexual abuse material (CSAM). The purpose was to make listeners aware of the scale of the problem and of the IWF’s great work combatting it. I knew it would be both challenging and rewarding.
A lot goes into making a series like this, some of it obvious, some of it less so.
Almost before you start, you need a narrative arc. For this project, beginning from a limited understanding of the subject matter, the journey would explain the nature and size of the issue and the difficulties involved in solving it; there would be personal stories from victims, offenders, their families and IWF staff to put a human face to the issue. Finally, it had to end on a note of hope. Executive producer Vince Hunt and I sat down to work out that story. Our first draft was jotted down on a napkin in an Indian restaurant and became known as the curry house podcast plan. At a later storyboarding meeting at the IWF we came up with the idea that each episode should bust a myth about CSAM.
Early on, we also knew we wanted a palette of textures to explore the subject, and this started with the music. I commissioned a young composer Jay Richardson, who understood the brief immediately and came up with a haunting piano piece in a minor key with several variations so we could use it to punctuate the interviews. He also composed a version in a major key for the last episode to end on an upbeat. My graphic artist came up with the logo of the screen wrapped in police tape, and the IWF design team imposed it on their pixilated image of a child. Only then did we begin to gather content.
The IWF comms team were invaluable in setting up interviews, making introductions and arranging logistics. The array of guests they conjured up was impressive; their reputation meant that people were only too willing to take part.
This is where my own education really began. John Carr, one of the world’s leading authorities on children's and young people’s use of the internet, explained the history of CSAM. Rhiannon, a survivor of child sexual abuse who had waived her right to anonymity told me her story. The Lucy Faithfull Foundation provided recordings of offenders and put me in touch with a partner of someone convicted of viewing CSAM. Dark web expert Jamie Bartlett explained the difference between the clear and dark web.
Conversations with Simon Bailey, Chief Constable of Norfolk and Britain’s top child protection expert, Rob Jones from the National Crime Agency Denton Howard from INHOPE, the international network of hotlines, gave me a much better understanding of the action being taken to solve the problem. A global perspective was provided by hotline managers from India and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
I also spoke to child safety bosses at Google, Facebook TalkTalk and Microsoft. I wanted to understand their perspective and learn what steps they had taken to remove material from their sites and prevent it being uploaded in the first place. And I spoke to many of the staff at the IWF who gave me an insight into their often harrowing work. There were uplifting stories too, such as Paul, who was able to help police identify a child by her school uniform.
Putting the episodes together was like an audio jigsaw puzzle and, having heard all the interviews, we had to revise our outline to work out what went where. We were also listening for stand-out quotes to trail future episodes. Time was getting tight by this time as the IWF wanted to bring the launch forward because of the Covid pandemic. The lockdown was putting children at added risk because they were spending more time online and had more opportunity to fall victim to predators, and secondly, people who look for this material had more time to do so.
The series was been very well received with reviews applauding our handling, saying: “powerful subject, thoughtfully expressed” and “a harrowing topic that needs to be heard.” If listening to the podcast educates one parent or carer about how to protect their child, our aim will have been achieved. The UK hosts less than half a percent of all CSAM but Britain has the second highest number of men (and it is almost exclusively men) looking at it. I hope that by listening to Pixels from a Crime Scene, people will be educated and consequently more able to fight it.