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Catfish UK review – exposing the cruellest fraudsters on the internet

Lucy Mangan
·4-min read

As the late, great Victoria Wood once put it: I wouldn’t be an adolescent again if you bumped my pocket money up to three and six.

Or as I – a weary, heartsore citizen of the world in this godforsaken year – would put it: why are there so many malevolent people out there, seeking to bend whatever new methods become available to their awful will, to make things worse and worse and then a little bit worse again?

Fortunately, I am not presenting Catfish UK. It would be a very different programme if I were.

A small piece of housekeeping before we continue. In case you are as old and tired as me, “catfishing” is pretending to be someone you’re not in order to develop a relationship with someone else online. Sometimes it is a financial scam; sometimes it is for deep-seated emotional or psychological reasons; and sometimes it is seemingly just for shits and giggles, because (see above) there is a stratum of people in every society who are awful always and for ever.

Related: Catfish UK hosts Julie Adenuga and Oobah Butler: ‘Manipulating people online has never been easier’

Catfish UK (MTV) is presented by the journalist and documentary-maker Oobah Butler and the radio host Julie Adenuga. It is the first television presenting job for either. While they are more than good enough to hold their own separately, they make a wonderful pairing. Seemingly genuine rapport makes the padding with which the show is filled a pleasure rather than a contemptuous grind.

The meat of the show, which is modelled on the hit US original (itself spun off from the 2010 film of the same name), is Butler and Adenuga investigating a potential catfish on behalf of a potential catfishee. This week, it is Emma, who has been communicating online – often multiple times a day – with a man called Harlin since she met him on a dating site about a year ago. She wants them to meet in person, but he is in the navy, so it hasn’t happened. But he asks about her day and how she is, and he has told her he loves her.

She once got a video call from him – she saw him out walking his dog – although she had to cut him off very quickly because she was in the car with her children. He didn’t call back or pick up the phone when she tried to contact him later. But the brief sight of him walking and talking was enough to let her lower her defences a little more. He is very handsome, very caring, “a real gentleman”. Emma doesn’t see what he sees in her, which one cannot help but suspect is exactly what he sees in her.

Butler and Adenuga get to work. They track down the pictures of Harlin – but they are not of Harlin. They are of a happily engaged man called Ben who has had multiple women contact him contending that they are in an online relationship together. He puts the dynamic duo in touch with two of them: Paula, who became suspicious early and got out quickly; and a German woman who did not and instead sent her online inamorato €2,000. Emma then tells them that Harlin sometimes asks her for money, too: “Just £50 or something – for the internet.”

At this point, they have to hand the whole thing over to fraud investigators, who tell them there were 6,000 reported “military romance scams” in 2019, which relieved their victims of a combined total of £68m. The video call was probably faked by pulling footage from something Ben posted on his social media accounts. Butler finds said video and shows it to Emma, who cries at this damning piece of evidence that nothing about the past year’s emotional reality was real at all.

It is an odd choice as an opening episode. The best of the US Catfish episodes – from an entertainment perspective – are those that have more convoluted motivations than money. They deliver a concentrated hit of gossip. A smattering of sex and psychology is always more fascinating than old scams executed in new ways.

The story is bleak; only the charm and optimism of the young presenters – who wholly earned their three and six – kept me from hurling myself into the abyss of the whisky bottle by the end. The credits inform us that contributors are offered counselling throughout. Some viewers will take that, too, please.