Jefferies (pictured) like Murat and Stagg
has been a media target
If British journalism ever had
a collective consciousness, it could pride itself on exposing such
travesties as the convictions of the Birmingham Six, the Bridgewater
Four and the Maguire Seven. But, these days the media seems to create
more miscarriages of justice than it solves.
The list is getting longer.
Having had dubious roles in the character assassinations of the London
misfits Colin Stagg and Barry George, the press demonised the innocent
"school nerd" Tom Stephens in stories about the Ipswich vice murders. He
"always wore tight trousers", a former school-friend told The Daily
Telegraph. Even the award of £600,000 damages paid by 11 titles to
' who was compared to the child killer Ian Huntley after aiding the
Madeleine McCann ' has not discouraged
the press from trying to finger the local weirdo for murder.
landlord of the Bristol murder victim
Joanna Yeates, was variously described
by The Sun as "weird, posh, lewd and creepy", a "blue-rinse, long-haired
bachelor", who was "very unkempt and had dirty fingernails" and was
"fascinated by making lewd sexual remarks". The comments were attributed
to unnamed students of the highly-regarded former member of the English
department at Clifton College. The Daily Mirror quoted another
"ex-pupil" asserting that Mr Jefferies, 65, was "obsessed" with Oscar
Wilde and his "favourite" work was "The Ballad of Reading Gaol". The
paper noted that this poem "tells the story of a man who was hanged for
cutting his wife's throat". The Daily Mail wondered if Mr Jefferies
could "hold the key" to a murder case in which the victim's flat showed
no signs of a forced entry.
The Attorney General, Dominic
Grieve, felt obliged to issue the press with a rare warning over
potential contempt of court. When the former schoolmaster was released
without charge on 1 January he promptly contacted lawyers. The Stokoe
Partnership, a London firm, issued an alert to all national newspapers
in respect of "a number of damaging and highly defamatory media
reports". This coverage, it said, "was based on uninformed speculation,
rumour and insinuation. The suggestion that our client was in any way
involved in Ms Yeates' murder is false and seriously defamatory".
Mr Jefferies, who remains on
police bail, is understood to be considering whether to pursue legal
action over the press coverage. On Saturday, a 32-year-old man was
charged with murdering Ms Yeates.
Stephen "Stig" Abell, director
of the Press Complaints Commission, says the self-regulatory body is
trying to be "more proactive" in approaching people who are named in
such stories, such as Mr Jefferies, and offering "to investigate on
their behalf". But media observers say it is harder to clear your name
in the internet era. "If you Google 'Christopher Jefferies' I suspect
that for an awful long time to come his name will be associated with the
murder of Jo Yeates," says Martin Moore, director of the Media Standards
Trust. "It appears as though the press feel there are less constraints.
They don't seem to be worried about codes of self-regulation or about
It had been assumed that the
extreme treatment of Mr Murat, who compared his treatment to "a fox
being pursued by a pack of hounds", was linked to the case being based
in foreign jurisdiction. The case of Shrien Dewani, who is accused in
South Africa of murdering his wife Anni, has also prompted widespread
media speculation regarding his possible motive.
"Sensation sells," says
publicist Max Clifford, who has worked for Murat and Dewani. "It's
always been like that but it's getting more vicious and destructive.
They'll always be tarred no matter what happens."
Media silk Desmond Browne QC
believes the pack mentality on big stories drives reporters to outdo
each other in sensationalism. "There's a syndrome best described by the
clich?of 'feeding frenzy' ? they are encouraged by the excesses of each
other and in the general m?? caution gets thrown to the wind."
Casual acquaintances and
former classmates who offer anonymous quotes on character that are open
to wide interpretation form part of the problem. But responsibility for
their use rests with the media.
Kevin Marsh, former editor of
BBC Radio 4's Today programme and executive editor of the BBC College of
Journalism, says trial by media is especially harmful when the
Government is reviewing libel laws said to be "chilling" investigative
reporting. "The one thing the [Daily] Express and [Daily] Star
journalists could have done with when committing 106 libels against the
McCanns was a bit of 'chilling'," he says. "Or the journalists who had
Colin Stagg banged to rights in the Rachel Nickell case, Tom Stephens in
the Ipswich murders, or Chris Jefferies in the Yeates murder. Couldn't
they have done with a bit more 'chill'?"