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!