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Channel 4 investigates after producer John Balson committed suicide

Trigger warning: This article contains mentions of suicide and other topics that readers may find disturbing.

Channel 4 has ordered an independent investigation into the death of a producer who took his own life after working on the British broadcaster’s true crime series. can reveal deadline.

John Balson died on May 17 after suffering weeks of severe physical pain and mental anguish. Deadline has spoken to his family and they have given us permission to publish this article to raise awareness about the dangers of overwork on reality TV, which was one of Balson’s wishes.

Channel 4 said it was “deeply saddened” by Balson’s death and has appointed British law firm Reynolds Porter Chamberlain (RPC) to investigate the incident. Channel 4 promised to take “all appropriate action”. The broadcaster is in contact with Balson’s family. No decision has yet been made on whether the programme will be broadcast.

During his time at On the trail of the murderers During the first four months of 2024, Balson, a 40-year-old father of one whose wife is pregnant with their second child, told his family that he had been threatened by someone close to a person he was researching. According to his wife, he felt blamed by production for a family refusing to participate in the show and became exhausted, leading to severe physical symptoms related to vestibular migraine disorder, while his mental health worsened.

Alaska TV, the London-based producer behind On the trail of Killers, said the welfare of its staff was of “utmost importance” but declined further comment, citing the ongoing investigation. An inquest into Balson’s death will not take place for several months and charities point out that no single factor should be considered a motive for suicide.

According to his recent medical history, which Deadline has obtained, the experienced producer and journalist, who has worked for Netflix’s When missing persons become murder and CBS Reality Murder: First on the crime scenehad struggled in recent years with long working days in Japan and then often late nights in Britain, dealing with difficult subjects and contributors. He had no history of mental health problems, his family said.

In January he began working on the third season of On the trail of Killers, a true crime series in which Silent witness Actress Emilia Fox and criminologist David Wilson investigate famous unsolved cases.

After his symptoms began in March, Balson sought help from several doctors and went to the emergency room twice. A few weeks before his death, he was told he was likely suffering from a form of vestibular migraine. He stopped working about a month before his death, and Alaska would not comment on whether they knew he was suffering at the time.

Channel 4 told us that RPC’s “thorough investigation”, intended as both a lesson-learner and a due diligence review, will take place “as quickly as circumstances allow”. Balson’s family will be informed of the results of the investigation. In the meantime, Channel 4’s head of programming Ian Katz has offered support to Balson’s family and the broadcaster has made a donation to them.

To avoid prejudging the results of the investigation, Channel 4 declined to comment on whether Alaska had breached its supplier code of conduct, which includes a section that reads: “The physical and emotional well-being and dignity of all persons participating in or otherwise involved with your business must be treated with due care.” The investigation is the second that Channel 4 has ordered in the past year, and raises further questions about how employees below the pay threshold are treated on its shows. Last May, Deadline revealed that the network had cut ties with two of its biggest stars, Dick and Angel Strawbridge, after ordering an investigation into their conduct.

Aside from comment, Alaska declined to answer several questions from Deadline. The company, run by Paul Sommers and Chris Fouracre, said it had never received a complaint of this nature before. A spokesperson said it offers colleagues access to “support resources including a specialist television production psychologist, recommended Screenskills courses (including on mental health) and help and advice from industry bodies such as the Film and TV Charity.”

Balson’s tragic death, the events leading up to it, and his desire to publicize the dangers of overwork in reality TV are likely to reignite debates about the duty of care and working conditions for television staff, particularly in the fast-moving world of true crime and reality TV series. Just last year, a group of British executives formed an association of true crime producers, and Deadline recently analyzed the work being done in the field to improve working conditions. Anonymous sources in the true crime field detailed their experiences, including “delayed trauma” and threats from contributors’ relatives.

Channel 4’s statement said: “Channel 4 was deeply saddened to hear of John’s death and our thoughts are with his wife and family at this incredibly difficult time. John was a highly valued and well-liked professional – both by his colleagues at Alaska TV and those who worked with him in the industry – and we will miss him dearly. We are in regular contact with John’s family and offer them our support. We are also in dialogue with (the union) BECTU and have appointed an external law firm to conduct a thorough investigation, which will take place as soon as possible. We will take all appropriate action in response to the findings.

“While we do not employ production staff directly, the wellbeing of everyone who works on the productions we commission is vital and something we take very seriously. We are committed to supporting our production partners to ensure these productions are safe and professional workplaces with protective measures in place. Our Supplier Code of Conduct outlines our obligations and is clearly communicated to all production companies we work with.”

Alaska’s statement continued: “It is with great sadness that we have learned of John’s passing – he was an extremely talented and thoughtful director who will be greatly missed by all of us. The wellbeing of all our staff is of paramount importance and whilst we are unable to comment further in light of Channel 4’s investigation, our thoughts and love are with John’s family and friends at this very difficult time.”

The Bectu union has repeatedly campaigned for better working conditions and shorter working hours in television, and in 2017 it launched a campaign called ‘Eyes half closed’, calling on the industry to come together and form a commission to work on reducing the industry’s dependence on a culture of overtime.

Bectu chief executive Philippa Childs said: “We are deeply saddened to hear of this tragedy and our thoughts are with John’s family, friends and all those affected. The industry must take urgent action to change the unhealthy and counterproductive culture of overtime, which leaves workers feeling isolated, burnt out and unable to maintain a healthy work-life balance.”

A GoFundMe page has been set up for Balson’s family where donations can be made.

Suicide is preventable and support can be found through the Samaritans, the National Suicide Prevention Helpline and other organisations. The Film and TV Charity’s Support Line is open 24 hours a day and is available to anyone working in the industry, whether freelance or employed. It offers immediate help from trained counsellors as well as access to other mental health support. Partners and adult children of those working in the industry can also access help. Call 0800 054 0000 or visit www.filmtvcharity.org.uk to start a live chat.

In the US, you can find a list of helplines here and information on suicide prevention from the National Institute of Mental Health here.