Here’s a new podcast on, sadly, an increasingly familiar subject: stalking. Can I Tell You a Secret? is made by the Guardian, with the great investigative writer Sirin Kale hosting and the equally excellent Axel Kacoutié on sound duties. Both are brilliant on detail, and this is an impressive, sensitive series.
Unlike most true crime series, Can I Tell You a Secret? is not a whodunnit. We already know whodunnit: it’s Matthew Hardy, a long-term online harasser of women, now in prison for his offences. Hardy, as Kale establishes, is known throughout Northwich, Cheshire, his home town, as someone who used technology to cause trouble. For years, he began online conversations with his victims (often using “can I tell you a secret?” as a gambit) that eventually led to him harassing them via social media or on the phone, sending fake text messages to them, breaking up relationships, destroying reputations, making threats.
His victims, initially local but eventually located across the UK, received a mixed reaction from the police: some forces were supportive, some not. Many in the police struggle with the idea of someone being threatened “virtually”. Hardy’s victims ended up on antidepressants, scared to live a normal life. An expert, later in the series, says this: “Cyber stalking is stalking.”
I love this sort of true tale, its eccentricity and emotion, the small, specific weirdness of a person
The award-winning Kacoutié has masses of experience, and brings his careful touch to the music and soundscaping. Kale, fairly new to podcasting, is great. Her script is sharp, she knows how to tell a story, and, vitally for this series, she is a wonderful interviewer. She needs all her professional powers in episode five (of six), where she interviews Hardy’s mother – a gripping but unhappy listen. It’s interesting to hear a true crime podcast that examines all aspects of the crime, including the question of support for the perpetrator. It leads to less of a thrill, perhaps, but far more realness: sadness, subtlety, awful disappointment in parts of our policing, social work and prison systems. So often, such series don’t bother to tell the full story, but Can I Tell You a Secret? aims high and delivers.
Talking of true crime series, it has been eight years since the mother of them all, Serial, was launched. The first ever smash hit podcast – so successful there were Saturday Night Live skits about it, and some people (OK, me) formed Facebook groups to discuss each episode – Serial blasted a route for true crime audio, and podcasts were never the same again. In it, Sarah Koenig, its much imitated but never topped host, re-examined a murder that took place in Baltimore in 1999. The victim was 18-year-old Hae Min Lee; the young man jailed for the murder Adnan Syed. Syed has always protested his innocence, and Serial, while not providing definitive evidence either way, cast enough doubt on his conviction for Syed to become a cause celebre.
Last week, he was released from prison. Over the past few months, Baltimore’s state attorney’s office has had another look at the case. Becky Feldman, chief of the sentencing review unit, discovered two handwritten notes relevant to the case that were not passed on to Syed’s defence. She also got new DNA evidence, more accurate information about mobile phone calls, and looked at how the police conducted their investigation. The result: Syed is not cleared – he may face another trial – but his conviction has been overturned. And Serial released a follow-up episode, with Koenig explaining, clearly and without bias, in less than 20 minutes, what has happened. She is such a good broadcaster, her script and delivery miles above everyone else’s. Plus, you get to hear that eerie theme tune again.
Another oldie, Heavyweight, is back, for series seven. This Gimlet-produced podcast began in 2016, and has been fairly consistent since then, though Covid messed up its output somewhat, and it transferred to Spotify in 2021. Heavyweight’s concept sounds strange: essentially, each week, host Jonathan Goldstein helps someone confront something that has been weighing them down for a while. Ruptured friendships and families, usually; the result is always surprising and often moving. The opening episode of the new series, Sara, is a strange twist on the theme. Sara gets a letter from a childhood friend who, weirdly, has almost exactly the same name as Sara, including middle name and surname. But Sara can’t remember her…
A story about something that hasn’t been weighing Sara down, then. And yet gradually, we – and Sara – begin to understand what might be hidden beneath. I love this sort of true tale, its eccentricity and emotion, the small, specific weirdness of a person and what makes them that way. And it’s only audio – this intimate, yet private medium – that can tell it. Lovely.
Miranda Sawyer is the Observer’s audio critic