Is there ever a right time to contact a killer?

Following the success of ITV’s ‘Des’ Associate Professor Fiona Graham questions whether is there ever a right time to contact a killer?

Contacting a killer or any criminal doesn’t come lightly but it can be argued it’s what you need to do when trying to tell a story or make a documentary about true crime.

Fiona Graham, Associate Professor of Film Technology

Des is a gripping factual drama examining the case of serial killer Dennis Nilsen who murdered at least 12 men and boys in London between 1978 and 1983. The popular series highlights the relationship between Brian Masters, confidant and biographer, who visits Nilsen played by David Tennant in prison.

Fiona, Associate Professor of Film Technology at Staffordshire University, has spent many years developing true crime stories and previously contacted Nilsen herself.

She explained: “Contacting a killer or any criminal doesn’t come lightly but it can be argued it’s what you need to do when trying to tell a story or make a documentary about true crime. But is there ever a right time to do this? I think there can be because developing crime programmes should always be about finding the truth and telling an accurate story.

“I realise the thought of contacting Nilsen may seem like a strange decision to some but it should not be about giving any actual perpetrator of a crime a voice. Instead, it should be background research along with official contributors required to create a story as accurate and true as possible.”

Fiona previously worked on BBC’s Crimewatch and developed series about some of Britain’s major crimes including Dr Harold Shipman, Stephanie Slater, Shannon Matthews, The Russell Murders, Dunblane, The Great Train Robbery, the Jill Dando murder and the Hungerford Massacre.

“Contacting those involved has to be taken sensitively and have a meaning. A few years ago, I felt contacting Dennis Nilsen may be the way forward but with no intention of letting him, if he agreed, have a public voice.”

Fiona added: “Talking on my phone in the kitchen to the 1963 Great Train Robber Bruce Reynolds may seem strange to some but to me his views were crucial to the story and on this occasion he became part of a documentary which saw him give one of his final ever interviews about the robbery, but Bruce was on the outside and had served his time.”

Going behind bars to see not only the prisoner but sometimes to understand the location itself has become far more commonplace today for writers and developers which can be seen with series including ITV’s ‘Inside Prison: Britain Behind Bars’.

Fiona believes that high rating programmes like this and ‘Serial Killer with Piers Morgan’ demonstrate how visiting prisoners can help to tell stories and raise awareness. Face-to-face interviews in the show open up the lives of convicted serial killers and help the public to learn more about their motives and the people behind the prison bars.

She said: “I question whether they should ever have a full public voice when behind bars but on the other hand to learn about crime can sometimes only come from those at its heart and it’s trying to get to the truth that is paramount and not the criminal’s ego or fantasies. That is when you need a strong interviewer like Piers Morgan - love him or loathe him he's brilliant at that.

“True crime takes you on so many pathways and it is the ethical and moral questions we ask as writers as what to do. For me, the documentary idea with Nilsen was not taken any further. It’s never an easy decision when creating content.”

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