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The Dublin-New York Portal didn’t show us Manhattan, just our badly-behaved selves

Baby Reindeer offered another kind of mirror into a world where reality and fiction are blurred with dangerous results

The mild embarrassment over the Dublin-New York Portal raises the question of where Dublin City Council has been since the invention of the internet. Who – other than, say, anyone with a smartphone – could have predicted that if you offer people access to a screen and a live audience, things are liable to swerve in an ignominious direction?

The idea conceived of by Lithuanian artist Benediktas Gylys was almost touchingly pure. Twin 8ft (2.4 metre) portals were set up on streets in Manhattan and Dublin with a 24/7 video connection between the screens. For a piece of public art, the engagement levels were impressive, even if the actual content was every bit as dull, random, uncouth – but mostly just dull – as the internet itself.

There was a lot of waving and selfies. Several people mooned. A few held up signs declaring Jesus to be king. Drugs were consumed. A woman in Dublin grinded energetically at the screen. A man in Dublin thrust an image of the burning Twin Towers at onlookers in New York. Over in the Flatiron district, a woman flashed her breasts. “They showed us the Twin Towers so I showed my twinset”, the woman, Ava Louise, an OnlyFans model of course, later explained.

Shortly after the impromptu showcasing of her “two New York home-grown potatoes”, as she put it, the portals were taken offline, with no news of an expected date for return.


That is a shame. They should have been left where they were as a public metaphor for how the presence of a screen turns us immediately into jabbering baboons. (That comparison is unfair: unlike humans on the internet, primates have a relatively sophisticated capacity for empathy.) The organisers told the New York Times they had hoped “that people in the crowd would stop someone who started to do something inappropriate”. Once again: have they heard of the internet?

We are the opposite of the “cat gamers” on social media who rack up points by swiping at graphics of mice scurrying across an iPad. The cats don’t understand that the mice are not real. We don’t understand that the humans on the other side of the screen are.

Richard Gadd and Jessica Gunning in Baby Reindeer. Photograph: Netflix

A much darker commentary on the inability of our brains to make sense of the fact that there are real humans somewhere down the line came via the disturbing, compulsive Netflix series Baby Reindeer. The series features a woman called Martha who develops a catastrophically damaging obsession with a struggling comic, Donny Dunn. Poignantly, it starts with a kind gesture: she bursts into tears in the pub and he gives her a cup of tea.

Netflix claims that “this is a true story”. Creator and star of the series Richard Gadd describes it as “pretty truthful”. This is dangerous territory. The inspiration was what he claims was a prolonged stalking he experienced during the 2010s when someone allegedly sent him 41,071 emails, 744 tweets, 350 hours of voicemail, and turned up at his gigs, his workplace, his parents’ home.

Gadd claims the creators went “to such great lengths to disguise her [the stalker] to the point that I don’t think she would recognise herself”. Netflix public policy director Benjamin King told a UK parliamentary committee that “every reasonable precaution” had been taken to disguise the identities of everyone involved.

And yet it took about as long as it did for the first bare bottom to appear on the Portal before internet sleuths had identified a candidate. I say sleuths, but there wasn’t much sleuthing, since the show included direct quotes from the Twitter account of the woman who says she was the inspiration for Martha, a Scottish lawyer called Fiona Harvey.

If it had stopped there, it would have been horrible enough, but then Piers Morgan got involved and interviewed Harvey. The result might be one of the most uncomfortable hours ever streamed on YouTube. Harvey told Morgan Gadd’s account was a “work of fiction”, “hyperbole” and denied being a stalker. She is considering legal action against Netflix and Gadd. Meanwhile, she now has her own rabid coterie of internet stalkers.

Gadd said this week that if he had wanted people to track her down, he would have made a documentary. What does he think the words ‘this is a true story’ mean?

Surely this was all entirely predictable. Trust in traditional media has declined for a variety of reasons, only some justifiable. But there is no way a thinly disguised autobiographical account such as Gadd’s would have been published in a media outlet here if there was even a slim possibility that anyone could later say they might be taken for the real Martha. Gadd said this week that if he had wanted people to track her down, he would have made a documentary. What does he think the words “this is a true story” mean?

The Portal: Are we overreacting to a bit of 'bad' behaviour?

Listen | 18:36

The whole thing raises serious questions of Netflix and of Gadd. What kind of risk assessment took place? What consideration was given to the notion that even their “best efforts” might not be enough and Martha would be identified – or that several possible Marthas might be? Harvey says she was not told about the series or invited to give her side; if she is the inspiration for Martha, what were the legal and moral considerations that informed this decision? And – again – where have they all been since the invention of the internet?

The Portal wasn’t a gateway to anywhere; it was an embarrassing mirror held up to our most banal and badly-behaved selves. Baby Reindeer was another kind of mirror, a black one into a world where the lines between fiction and reality are merged, where the alleged stalker becomes the stalked, where vulnerable people are fodder for frenzied speculation by the internet mob.

But none of this, in 2024, is breaking news. Don’t we know by now that screens bring out the worst in us?