Jefferies Case Demonstrates 'Casual Cruelty' of Journalism

Article excerpt

Byline: Roy Greenslade MEDIA ANALYSIS

SEVERAL journalists have contacted me in the past week to accuse our trade of an unacceptable rush to judgment in the coverage of the Joanna Yeates murder. One said: "As a reporter myself who was rigorously schooled in the dangers of contempt during my training, I am amazed at the liberties taken by the press during this case."

Another said the media's treatment of the man arrested by police, Christopher Jefferies, made him sick. A third described it as "deplorable".

They were appalled that the Sun should have described him in a headline as weird, posh, lewd and creepy. The Daily Express said former pupils at Clifton College, the public school he had worked at for more than 30 years before retiring in 2001, "painted a picture" of him as an eccentric. According to the Express, one unnamed ex-pupil said he was "a sort of Nutty Professor". Others (also unidentified) said they were "creeped out" by his "strange" behaviour.

Some journalists told me they were even more outraged that the serious press published so much slanted material from anonymous sources. The Times carried a "strange Mr Jefferies" headline along with a claim that he knew Miss Yeates "would be at home alone on the weekend she disappeared".

Nudge, nudge. The Daily Telegraph reported that Jefferies "has been described by pupils at Clifton College... as a fan of dark and violent avant garde films". Wink, wink.

The Guardian indulged in innuendo too, referring to him as a "flamboyant" ex-teacher who "sometimes sported blue hair". It went on to quote an acquaintance as saying Jefferies was not easy to get to know. So what? BBC news and current affairs programmes, plus its website, carried interviews with neighbours, reporting that they referred to him in somewhat oxymoronic terms as "an eccentric pillar of society". Which of those phrases are viewers and listeners likely to remember? All of this, I readily concede, may be a true description of Jefferies.

But the overall picture drawn of the man across the media was wholly negative. It was character assassination on a large scale.

No wonder the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, felt it necessary to issue a warning to editors not to prejudice any future trial with their coverage. On past form, he will not do more than that. The Contempt of Court Act has been treated with contempt by national newspapers and broadcasters for a long time now, and the judiciary has not acted.

Journalists have been playing fast and loose with the Act, which is supposed to ensure that people can receive a fair trial, for years.

It used to be the convention that when someone was arrested, papers published very little information about the person in order to prevent jurors from being prejudiced either for or against a defendant.

Gradually, especially in high-profile crimes, national newspapers and television broadcasters have published more and more about people who are under arrest.

The problem for lawyers who complain about the effects of media coverage is the Act's major test. They have to demonstrate that what is published or broadcast has created a substantial risk that the course of justice will be seriously impeded or prejudiced.

Note the subjective nature of those key words "substantial" and "seriously". …