Christopher Jefferies, arrested last week and questioned about the murder of Bristol landscape architect Jo Yeates, expects to be cleared of any involvement in her murder within days, it has been reported. The police can find no evidence or motive connecting him to her murder.
Yet only a week ago, as soon as he was arrested, Jefferies was presumed guilty by many media outlets. ‘Weird, posh, lewd, creepy’, The Sun called him, before quoting various unnamed sources who made him out to be just the type who might commit murder. “You didn’t want him to come near you” one was quoted as saying, “He was very unkempt and had dirty fingernails. He was weird”. Another quoted unnamed source said that “He was fascinated by making lewd sexual remarks. It was really disturbing.”
Despite the lack of evidence the press sought to use any facts known about Jefferies as proof of his guilt. An incriminating Mirror headline read ‘Chris Jefferies’ “favourite” poem was about killing wife’. Quite a leap given the paper was referring to the Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde, not such a surprising choice of poem for an ex-English teacher. It was a little like saying a historian who writes about Hitler must be a Nazi. In The Times a headline read, ‘Strange Mr Jefferies knew boyfriend was away’, implying that this information implicated him in the murder. This despite the fact that Yeates had reportedly announced on her Facebook profile that she would be alone that weekend.
But what is to stop the press acting in the same way – or worse – towards the next suspect in the Yeates case? Let’s not forget that Jefferies is hardly the first to have been presented in this way. Robert Murat’s life will never be the same after the press went for him after the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. Previous to Murat there was Tom Stephens (falsely suspected of being involved in the Ipswich murders), and there have been others – not necessarily accused of murder – whose lives have been blighted by false accusations (such as the Tamil hunger striker in Parliament Square accused by The Sun and The Daily Mail of secretly breaking his fast).
The law intended to prevent, or at least dampen, this sort of trial by media – the Contempt of Court Act 1981 – is no longer effective. This is partly due to its limited use since 1981, but mainly to developments in technology and publishing; such that the law is now extremely difficult to police and almost impossible to prosecute.
It is certainly clear the tabloids now set little store by the Act. Kelvin McKenzie, columnist and ex-editor of The Sun, speaking on Radio 4’s The Media Show this week, said Contempt of Court is an ‘inconsequential piece of law now… and if it wasn’t inconsequential before, the online world makes it ridiculous’. ‘Allow newspapers to continue with their excess’, McKenzie continued, ‘because excess is part of free speech’ (The Media Show, 5-1-11).
If the Contempt of Court Act will not dampen this sort of reporting will media culture? Will those within the press look at the treatment of Jefferies, Murat, Stephens and others and be more reticent before assuming the next person’s guilt? There is no doubting the material effect the reporting can have on people’s lives. Robert Murat said his ‘life will be scarred forever’ by the coverage. The Tamil hunger striker was ostracised by his community and said he considered suicide.
But it is unlikely our media culture will prevent this. Indeed some of the journalists reporting on Christopher Jefferies previously reported on the McCanns and Robert Murat, so they must have been well aware of the dangers of jumping to ill-founded conclusions and the damage it can do (notably Gary O’Shea, The Sun and Ryan Parry, The Mirror).
Not only is our media culture unlikely to prevent this, there is a good chance it could get worse. Some of those publishing online and on social networks certainly did not feel constrained even by the ghost of the Contempt Act, accepting the newspapers’ headlines and assuming Jefferies’ guilt. The sense of a growing consensus of someone’s guilt cannot but help encourage mainstream media to go further – buoyed by the public’s apparent acceptance.
Perhaps self-regulation of the press could slow or reverse this? Since the law is such a blunt instrument for dealing with the media it is, in general, much better that the press deal – and are seen to be dealing – with things themselves.
Unfortunately, the way self-regulation is currently structured, this is unlikely to happen. The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) does work behind the scenes when there are media feeding frenzies (such as contacting the local police and offering its services). But, as we saw in the case of the McCanns and Robert Murat, its effect is often very limited. Moreover, its powers are highly constrained. It is loath to intervene while a case is live, and after the event, the most redress it can offer is the publication of a correction or apology (which does not have legal backing).
What about libel law? As currently constituted libel law is complex, anachronistic, time consuming and eye-wateringly expensive. It has been used by powerful organisations and individuals as a tool to shut down debate about science and to prevent publication of reports of significant public interest by NGOs. It is in need of reform and, going by what Nick Clegg said at the Institute of Government this week, it will be.
Yet it is also one of the only means people like Christopher Jefferies have of seeking some form of redress after being ‘monstered’. Robert Murat pursued his case in the court, on the basis of a Conditional Fee Agreement, and received a settlement of £600,000.
Plus, ‘will we get sued?’ is one of the few things the press still worry about before they publish. Remove this risk and there is very little to stop them publishing more of these kind of stories.
Reform of libel law is necessary and overdue. But, in the process of reform we need to make sure that people like Jefferies, Murat and others do not lose any form of redress against monstering by the press.
Martin Moore is director of the Media Standards Trust.
The Media Standards Trust and INFORRM are holding an event at Gray’s Inn on Tuesday 11 January 2011. ‘Libel reform: in the public’s interest’ which will be chaired by Baroness Helena Kennedy, and includes Sir Charles Gray, Razi Mireskandari, Evan Harris, Zoe Margolis and Kevin Marsh.