The Lost Honour of Chris Jefferies

Joanna Yeates murder: her former landlord Chris Jefferies.

Christopher Jefferies

A curious, but not unpredictable, aspect in the reporting of the ongoing investigation into the murder of Joanna Yeates, is the characterisation of suspect Christopher Jefferies. As coverage continued on 31 December, the Attorney General Dominic Grieve issued a rare warning to the press that its coverage of the case must remain fair

Clearly, we are considering what I have seen in the newspapers today and we will try to take such action, and it is right to ensure that the course of justice is not in any way impeded.

Christopher Jefferies, aged 65, was Jo Yeates’s landlord and lives in a flat on the floor above her. Insufficient to fill the column inches of Christmas holiday newspapers, The Sun has become the most notable of Britain’s dailies to further characterise the retired schoolmaster. A report accompanying a photography of Jefferies in the 31 December edition began:

THIS is Joanna Yeates murder suspect Chris Jefferies – sporting the wispy blue-rinse hairdo that saw him branded “strange” by school pupils he taught.

The Sun did not hesitate to quote the unsubstantiated opinions of “weird-looking” Jefferies’ former pupils in the same day’s edition, carrying unsourced quotes about his character such as, “He was very flamboyant. We were convinced he was gay…You didn’t want him to come near you. He was very unkempt and had dirty fingernails. He was weird.” The article goes on to report,

Another student told how groups of up to ten pupils were invited to Jefferies’ home.  The mum of two, who was a 16-year-old boarder at £28,000-a-year Clifton in the 1980s, recalled: “The evenings would take place towards the end of the week, normally a Friday.”

The use of such descriptions, accompanied with opinions on character, are designed to make the suspect the Other – Other to the target reader and Other from what is considered “normal behaviour” by society.  The quotes above suggest Jefferies to be a homosexual and have an unhealthy attraction towards adolescents, which in turn casts him as criminal as well as deploying ugly stereotypes relating to homosexuality and paedophilia.  The result is that Jefferies’ eccentricities are deployed to paint him as different in opposition to the innocent and concerned reader, and therefore not just suspect, but somehow guilty of Jo Yeates’s murder.

Samira Ahmed, presenter and reporter at Channel 4 News had recognised the problematic nature of such reporting. On Twitter, she wrote the following expressing her personal concern about the reporting of the Yeates case in the press and broadcast media:

Channel 4 News sought to dispel the negative characterisation of Jefferies, quoting a named former colleague Richard Bland who said, “A lot of people have said he was eccentric and in a sense I suppose he was…but in a sense all school teachers are eccentric, because eccentricities are developed partly as a way of protecting one’s own inner self from being on show all the time.”  Despite this, Channel 4 News had also failed to stick to “name, age, profession and address” by 31 December, reporting in an online article, “Local people have described Mr Jefferies as a ‘nutty professor type’” adding to the Othering of Jefferies.

Among the criticism of the coverage of the Yeates case, Barrister and former MP Jerry Hayes, writing for Think Politics, goes so far to allege that journalists have “bunged” police officers to extract information on the suspect.  In criticising the smearing of Jefferies by the press, Hayes writes:

We as a society are nervous about those who are different. For reasons that go way back to the persecution of eccentric healers as witches and even into antiquity, we are wary of those who, to our standards, are strange.

For Hayes, the press reporting is symptomatic of a wider social malaise, which he finds indicated further through the “bullying” on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere on the internet. He adds, “We have a great tradition of tolerance in this country. But it is only skin deep. Scratch the surface in our communities and something dark, ugly, menacing is lurks. It is fear.”

Hayes also writes “If he is charged, British Justice assures him of a fair trial”, yet the caricature of Jefferies that the media have built up will ensure that there cannot be a fair trail, should he be called to such. The coverage has already caused major concerns over the abuse of contempt of court laws, as Jefferies has already been made to look guilty by the press, for being different.

Within the criticism of the reporting of the Yeates case, the comparison has been drawn between the press smearing of Jefferies and the plight of the protagonist in Heinrich Böll’s novel The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum.  Böll’s novel is set in 1970s West Germany under the fear of  terrorism by the Red Army Faction, while today’s reporting comes under fear of paedophiles and religious extremists, as Hayes identifies.  Katharina Blum’s life and the most tenuous personal connections are probed and exploited for headlines in the tabloid newspaper featured in Böll’s novel, while in 2010 and 2011 reporters travel to Bristol  to speak to neighbours and track down former pupils of Jefferies; their prejudices of the suspect, supposedly innocent until proven guilty, become newsworthy fact.  At the time of writing, we don’t know what role – if any – Jefferies played in the murder of Jo Yeates, but in Böll’s novel Katharina is found to be innocent; she and the man she had just met had no connection with the bank robbery the police were investigating. The point of Böll’s novel is not only to demonstrate the violence and corruption fueled by social fear and paranoia, nor only to demonstrate the contempt or hypocrisy of the media in its quest for headlines to satisfy the bottom line. Böll’s novel (as well as Volker Schlöndorff and Magharethe von Trotta’s vivid film adaptation of the novel, which Böll was involved in), demonstrates the destruction of a life  – Blum’s – through the hounding of the media, the complicity of the police and the resulting public mob reaction she experiences.

Böll’s novel was written before the age of the internet, and Grieve and Hayes indicate of a new challenge to fair reporting and protecting those suspected of crime or awaiting trial. Grieve said

Newspapers are under a legal obligation, indeed all media is under a legal obligation, in fact everybody who puts something on the internet is under a legal obligation, to observe the principles of the Contempt of Court Act.

If any internet user, be it a blogger or a user of a social networking or microblogging site, is obliged to follow the law in the Contempt of Court Act, how should bad or unfair reporting be challenged? How much room is there to repeat unfair remarks, as presented above? Who is held to account when a certain view is repeated or relayed by a large group of people (such as through the recent #IAmSpartacus Twitter Joke Trial hashtag)? How will the competition between print media, broadcast media and the internet (amid the now-perennial worries about the death of newspapers) affect the way crimes are reported?  The law around contempt of court not only needs to be clarified, but good practice needs to be agreed, demonstrated and promoted.

Update – 21st April: Lawyers acting for Chris Jefferies have announced that he is to take legal action against a number of newspapers for libel and invasion of privacy, including The Sun, Daily Mirror, Daily Mail, Daily Express, Daily Star “and others”. A report in the Press Gazette can be found here.

27 Comments

Filed under Human Rights, Media

27 responses to “The Lost Honour of Chris Jefferies

  1. Jerry Hayes

    A very interesting piece. You are right about the press. The PCC is toothless and politicians too scared to legislate for fear of their skeletons being rattled in public. No doubt there will be a new code of practice which will work for about a year. With a bit of luck I am hopelessly wrong!

  2. Thanks for putting into words what so many of us have been thinking.

    Something needs to be done about the press interfering with court cases. It’s not the first time this has happened but it’s probably the most flagrant to date.

    Grr.

  3. stephenglenn

    It’s not the PCC that should be doing something but the CPS, the media are seriously affecting the posibility of anyone getting a fair trail if they carry on with this sort of action.

  4. Thank you for your very thoughtful article, which seems to me very astute about the construction (and assassination) of character from innuendo, unsubstantiated gossip and wholly illegitimate reporting practices. You provide a voice of reason in relation to the Sun’s rabid, fear- and prejudice-fuelled, dangerous and irresponsible ‘journalism’. Thank you.

  5. Mark Greenwood

    The worse culprit has been the Daily Mail.
    Funny how the journalists on the Mail can destroy a man because he “looks weird”, but did not have the guts to publish a cartoon of Mohammed.
    Then of course Islamic terrorists have guns and old English teachers do not.
    I have no idea if the bloke is innocent or guilty, however if he was guilty the media have risked it ever coming to court and if he was innocent he has been destroyed for trying to help the Police catch the real killer.
    Well done Daily Mail.Perhaps that self rightious prick Richard Littlejohn might like to explain how the rag he works for is helping Ms Yeates family ir at the very least report fairly instead of being the modern equivilent of the Witchfinder General.

  6. nick s

    Any journalist working on a crime beat might find it a useful exercise to write up a hypothetical trial-by-media profile of his or her own quirks, foibles and eccentricities.

    There’s an obvious influence from the US, where the First Amendment trumps contempt (and, usually, libel) and juries aren’t bound to secrecy over their deliberations. This has been a long-standing problem in American reporting on Canadian cases, heightened by the ease of access to online media.

    While there are arguments for and against each approach, importing the anything-goes American attitude to ongoing cases through osmosis is clearly unacceptable, and the only way to address it is through the CPS enforcing contempt laws — starting at the top of the media pyramid.

  7. Thank you for all your comments so far. From the responses I have had to this posts, there is clearly a lot of concern and anger about the nature of crime reporting in the press. It should be warned that it is such intrusive and irresponsible reporting that could more likely lead to censorship, further eroding the remaining advantage of the press over the internet.

    I’m particularly interested in Stephen’s comment that the CPS, and not the PCC, who should be taking action. This deserves much further debate.

    What I found particularly interesting from the Attorney General’s remarks on potential Contempt of Court in the Yeates case is on the use of the internet. We know that smearing and allegations are made and spread about people in the news without print and broadcast media: various Royals and footballers will tell you that.

    The question arises of what kind of “contract” do we as internet users enter when we make claims, share or repeat opinions? Who becomes responsible when reports affect court trials or are libellous? How could such laws work, considering the cross-border nature of the internet? The legal powers to challenge those in breach of Contempt of Court laws need to be absolutely clear to internet users as well as professional print and broadcast journalists.

  8. Anne Booth

    This was a very thoughtful, interesting piece, and I agree with both it and all the comments afterwards.

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  11. nick s

    “The legal powers to challenge those in breach of Contempt of Court laws need to be absolutely clear to internet users as well as professional print and broadcast journalists.”

    I’m not sure that we’re going to get that clarity. Contempt charges are, almost by necessity, situational and “disciplinary”, a bit like cards in a football match. They exist to remind the players who’s in charge when things get out of hand.

    If that role is delegated to the PCC, then it’s basically a remit for British tabloids to adopt American reporting freedoms — without the culture of relative sobriety that exists in the mainstream American press, or the attendant protections that the US has adopted at criminal trials to balance them out.

  12. Mark

    I pray some legal action is taken here, I live in Bristol and there are plenty of eccentric people up there in clifton, it’s what makes the place so different. The way he’s been branded in the media is disgrace and a line in the sand needs to be drawn, if he is in fact innocent.

  13. Excellent points Tim and convincingly made. Have been following the media coverage from Dublin and cannot believe that lurid and speculative chatter passes for journalism. It is damaging for everyone, not least for Joanna Yeates, for whom justice remains outstanding. She is not a marketing product, but a victim. That seems to have been utterly forgotten by some media outlets in their pursuit of gory headlines. Irrespective of the outcome of police investigation into her landlord, the reporting around this aspect of the case is quite scurrilous. One questions who exactly such innuendo benefits?

  14. Mike Hock

    I was a pupil of CJEJ in the 80′s – he would have had problems carrying a bag of groceries for a 100 yards then – the idea that he could transport a cadaver, let alone strangle a young, fit woman, from the flat to the boot of a car are absurd. He had famously long fingernails and long hair – where are the forensics?

    CJEJ – good luck, you will clean up in the courts once the murderer has been found and you have been exonerated.

    please support Facebook group Christopher Jefferies is innocent – Justice the Canynge 1

  15. Leigh Glanville

    Excellent and important piece, Tim.

    I was also a pupil and very good friend of CJEJ through most of the 80s – he taught me English all through A-Level and when I was 13 too. Lots of us are appalled by this shameful smearing. CJEJ (as he was known) was undoubtedly a bit eccentric. But do we want our teachers to act and look like soulless civil servants? He was a very moral man, schooled in the tradition of the famous critic F.R. Leavis.

    CJEJ was extremely refined in terms of art, music (Classical) and literature, he had no television and had little time for or contact with “popular culture”. He was an enthusiast for film as a medium of art, and we would go to see for example the Alain Resnais season at the Bristol Watershed which he would then elucidate for us which exceptional insight. He has taught me personally Shakespeare, Milton, and Joseph Conrad among many others. He achieved consistently high grades among his pupils – and I myself subsequently went to Cambridge to read English.

    He was never obsessed with death nor with Christina Rossetti nor was his favourite poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol! He would NEVER ask the pupils to hold hands while he read sick poems to them, “staring into space” – all of which I have read in the gutter press with appalled disbelief.

    As I knew him (and I have had many dinners with him, been to concerts and plays with him and been in his flat hundreds of times) Christopher Jefferies was a man of the highest integrity and erudition. He was undoubtedly different from the norm… but with that difference he supported our individuality and we all had tremendous respect for him. He was regarded with affection and respect by the vast majority of the pupils at Clifton.

    What is happening to him now – this “monstering” as Tim calls it before he is even charged with anything – is disgraceful and this sort of thing must surely not be tolerated any longer in this country.

  16. Nick Wightwick

    It was this sort of hysterical character assassination that led to Barry George being arraigned and convicted of murder (Jill Dando) without a shred of evidence other than he fitted the profile that the police had decided was the type that would do such a deed. It is quite disgraceful that elements of the press, including supposedly responsible papers, have indulged in such a spate of gossip and tittle tattle. Well done! Your article is cogent and well timed. Mr Jefferies should take all the papers to court when this is over, and more power to his elbow.

  17. Paul

    Very interesting and well written. I agree absolutely. Being slightly odd is a part of being English.

  18. Ally

    I’ve read a lot of the coverage of the case and have been absolutely appalled. Every report seemed to be peppered with emotive adjectives designed to make readers believe that the poor man was guilty, when he hadn’t been charged with anything. It wasn’t just the terrible reporting, but the biased headlines and captions, many of which made derogatory comments about his appearance and lifestyle. Since when did being an individual make a person guilty of murder? The reports were also interspersed with choice bits of hearsay and details of other unconnected cases; these were clearly designed to suggest Chris Jefferies’ guilt and might well have confused a stupid person. Fortunately, there are still many people who are capable of reading between the lines.

    Standards of journalism have plummeted in recent years, which I believe is a direct result of changes in the way journalists are trained. School leavers used to join a local publication and undertake rigorous training supervised by the National Council for the Training of Journalists; now oversubscribed media courses in universities across the country churn out far too many graduates who are clearly unfit for purpose. Every newspaper in the country should be taking steps to ensure that its staff are adequately trained; people’s lives and reputations may be, quite literally, in journalists’ hands.

    As for the conduct of local plods, I’m afraid that words fail me.

  19. PMartin

    Anyone who knew CJEJ would have strongly doubted motive or ability to commit this crime, so this was an unholy conspiracy between Police and Press, both deserve a bit of English justice.

  20. CC

    It springs to mind that the age of the internet presents Mr. Jeffries with an interesting opportunity. Of course since his arrest there has been a lot of scurrilous characterisation on the internet of CJEJ as a sex-crazed murderer.

    If he is innocent of this murder, surely this “trial by media” on the internet (as part of the media) prejudices the would-be trial and allows escape from the “gallows”.

    If he is innocent, then the wrongful arrest by the police and the ensuing trial my media (both the traditional press and, now, the internet) will allow CJEJ to sue the “pants” off the authorities and demand an apology, etc ; somehow probably softening the blow of his character assassination.

    The whole business is likely to become a landmark legal event with the need now to deal with the internet effectively becoming regarded as part of the mainstream media.

  21. IW

    As has been pointed out elsewhere, but needs repeating wherever possible, it was precisely because the police were convinced that they had the “weirdo” who fitted their prejudices ( he reads books! not a recommendation in their eyes) that they omitted all the customary work of searching and sifting that might have led to the real culprit until it was too late.

  22. Mac

    One suspects that the anonymous quotes in the press re Mr Jefferies were simply made up by reporters, since they do not match up with those given by genuine named ex-pupils, and do not ring very true in terms of vocabulary and style.

    Time the media were stopped from printing “quotes” from unnamed sources.

  23. Tim, thank you for your comments regarding Christopher.

    Not only in your country but around the world the media in their frenzy to sell newspapers have taken stands concerning incidents of all descriptions and have become judge and jury in their reporting.

    All you have to do today is follow the money train to find out what is important to the media.

    Keep up the good work.

    Mission, British Columbia, Canada

  24. Love this brilliantly written and researched.

  25. carrikp

    Thank you for an excellent article. Like other posters I have been quite disgusted at the media’s treatment of Mr Jefferies.

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  27. YvG

    Tim
    this was a very important reflection on the prevailing state of the British tabloid media, today 29/7/11 Mr Jefferies won ‘substantial libel damages’ against 8, this needs to be repeated 8 national newspapers. This month the NOTW closed down due to the phone hacking scandle, several heads did roll, but those most responsible Rebecca Ward and Rupert Murdock and son escaped, and the revelations about what most people suspect was common practice in Fleet Street continues to surface. From this point on its clear that there needs to be an organisation that can take-on the underhanded culture that exists in the press and bring the integrity back to reporting, so that they stop insulting the intelligence of the public and poisoning the attitudes of the reader with emotive, unsubstantiated fear mongering news tales that undermine the progress toward a community based society, where understanding and respect are important and the drive towards shallow celebrity values is redressed.

    Well done to you.

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