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.