"The smears were so extensive, there will be always be people who don't
know me", Chris Jefferies told the Leveson Inquiry yesterday, "who will
retain the impression I am some sort of very weird character who is best
avoided." He added he "will never fully recover from the events" or
their "incalculable" effect on him.
'events', Mr Jefferies, a retired teacher, was referring to the
week-long persecution he suffered at the hands of our press. In seeking
a culprit for Joanna Yeates' murder, they alighted on the landlord with
the funny hair. His fault, I guess, for impersonating Emmett Brown, the
mad doctor in Back to the Future; but front pages like The Sun's "The
Strange Mr Jefferies – Kids' nickname for ex-teacher suspect" were a bit
much, on reflection. Or The Daily Mirror: "Jo suspect is Peeping Tom".
Or the Daily Star: "Jo landlord a creep who freaked out schoolgirls".
On my first foreign assignment as a reporter a few years back, I was
sent to Portugal to cover the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. By the
time I turned up in Praia da Luz, the only story in town was "Is Robert
Murat guilty?". The friend of the McCann's had received the same
treatment as Mr Jefferies. A Daily Mail double-page spread set the
agenda: "Oddball of the Algarve". The story is still online, with a
picture caption reading: "Suspect or scapegoat? Robert Murat claims he
will not live unless Madeleine's true abductor is captured – is it all a
pretence?" Well, is it?
his cogent, scathing testimony to Leveson last week, Hugh Grant detailed
the harassment not just of Tinglan Hong, the mother of his child, but
also Ms Hong's elderly mother. Her ordeal, like that of Jefferies and
Murat, show that the need for exclusives now routinely leads not just to
blatant invention and deceit of readers, but unforgivable persecution of
Tabloid journalism – a British invention – used to be one of the things
that made our country great. My hero, Hugh Cudlipp, edited a Daily
Mirror whose slogan was "Forward with the People". It was a tribune of
the poor. Then Rupert Murdoch hijacked that slogan for The Sun, after
the Mirror dropped it. With that seminal moment in Britain's post-war
history, tabloids began to elevate the commercial interests of their
owners above a commitment to honest reporting.
Our free press is too precious to let Sir Brian Leveson put its
regulation in the hands of the state. But the bullying of Jefferies,
Murat, Hong and many others risks doing just that. In more ways than
one, tabloid instincts are taking our country to the gutter.