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  • Trial by media

    by Rumbold
    4th January, 2011 at 11:36 am    

    Anton Vowl at the Enemies of Reason has an excellent post on the media’s treatment of Chris Jefferies, who has been questioned by the police in connection with the death of Joanna Yeates. He points out the allegations and insinuations that have been hurled at Mr. Jefferies even though Mr. Jefferies had not been charged with anything:

    His photograph has appeared on the front page of national newspapers 11 times. He was described as “weird”, “lewd”, “strange”, “creepy”, “angry”, “odd”, “disturbing”, “eccentric”, “a loner” and “unusual” in the course of just one article. That the former English teacher should have liked the classic Oscar Wilde poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol was described by one article as “Chris Jefferies’ favourite poem was about killing wife”. That the teacher should have taught pupils about the horror of the Holocaust and a classic novel by Wilkie Collins was described as him being “obsessed with death”. He was accused of being a ‘peeping tom’ by people who never made a complaint to police about his activities. One front-page headline asked of the landlord “Could this man hold the key to Joanna’s death?” and the next day asked “Was Jo’s body hidden next to her flat?” next to a picture of him.

    Should people accused of major crimes have their identities protected? On balance yes, and it certainly should be the case for anyone who has not even been charged and brought to trial yet. There can be advantages to publicising potential suspects: other people may come forward with information which could lead to the police catching the perpetrator. But set against this is the damage done to innocent people (and everyone is innocent until proven guilty). For the time being Mr Jefferies’ life is over, thanks to a rabid media. I don’t know if Mr. Jefferies was involved at all in Ms. Yeates’ death, but nor does the media. That is for the courts to decide.

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    Filed in: Civil liberties,Media

    22 Comments below   |  

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    1. sunny hundal

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    1. Matt — on 4th January, 2011 at 11:42 am  

      The answer is not to give anonymity to the accused - justice must be seen to be done - but to make the media behave more responsibly. Part of that, aside from abolishing the PCC and replacing it with a genuinely independent watchdog with real teeth, must also be about ending the newsroom culture of irresponsibility.

    2. Sarah Hayward — on 4th January, 2011 at 11:50 am  

      The problem is there are compelling reasons why the police want suspects to be named and indeed pictured. Particularly to prompt other witnesses to come forward and to trace suspects who have fled - like Crimewatch’s rogues gallery.

      It’s a hugely sensitive area and I regularly have sympathy for people who receive such treatment at the hands of the media when they are, in the eyes of the law (and as Joanna Yeates partner pointed out) innocent.

      There must be a way of balancing the investigatory needs of the police and how the media cover those investigations. Some of that coverage is legitimate both in the detection of crime and the public interest.

      Clealry too often it veers in to titilation that can be hugely damaging to individuals. But I’m not convinced that a blanket concealment of suspects’ identities is the answer.

    3. Refresh — on 4th January, 2011 at 12:50 pm  

      We need a method of making the stringers, reporters, sub-editors and editors individually responsible. And of course the proprietors.

      We could hand this task to Private Eye.

    4. Katy Newton — on 4th January, 2011 at 2:37 pm  

      I thought the “obsessed with death” thing was related to his admiration of Christina Rosetti (the fact that enjoying the work of this universally respected and admired poet marks you out as a crazed psychotic killer came as a shock to me, I can tell you). I do feel sorry for the poor bloke. If someone can show me he’s guilty that’s a different matter, but as far as I can see there’s cock all evidence against him apart from the fact that he has unruly hair and Ming the Merciless eyebrows, which makes him about as guilty of murdering Joanna Yeates as George Galloway.

    5. chairwoman — on 4th January, 2011 at 3:11 pm  

      Personally, I’d go for George :) .

    6. Refresh — on 4th January, 2011 at 3:38 pm  

      Happy New Year Chairwoman.

      ‘Personally, I’d go for George’

      I’d leave it to the media. They seem to relish the prospect of compensating George Galloway more than I believe you would.

    7. Don — on 4th January, 2011 at 6:22 pm  

      Good post, Rumbold. While releasing a name and photo of a suspect can sometimes be necessary, the press coverage in this case was appalling. Eccentric and unusual are often the qualities of the best teachers, and he seems to be remembered by former pupils as a teacher who could inspire students with a love for poetry. None of us know whether he had any involvement at all in this case and the media should limit themselves to clear factual statements.

      Reminds me of the coverage of Moat, where the press seemed to compete with each other in goading him. I suppose that if he had gone on a killing spree in Rothbury they would have sold more copies.

      Self-regulation seldom works, we need some regulation that holds editors to account in a meaningful way. Not much chance of that as successive governments wet themselves at the thought of offending Murdoch.

    8. Refresh — on 4th January, 2011 at 6:44 pm  

      ‘Not much chance of that as successive governments wet themselves at the thought of offending Murdoch.’

      Halcyon days, Don.

      Today politicians vie to be anointed by him.

    9. Golam Murtaza — on 5th January, 2011 at 6:22 am  

      I work for a local paper and we are EXTREMELY careful not to prejudice potential criminal proceedings or active criminal proceedings. Most other local newspapers I’m aware of are also very careful. I get frustrated and angry when I see national reporters/editors getting away with blatant instances of this and NOTHING happens to them. And we local journalists, who do try to follow the law, get tarred with the same brush as them.

    10. Sarah AB — on 5th January, 2011 at 7:46 am  

      Yes, the damning by literary tastes is awful. As a lecturer with an interest in (Greek and Roman) classics and Shakespeare, a pretty high proportion of the texts I teach dwell on rape, murder and violent mutilation.

    11. Rumbold — on 5th January, 2011 at 8:29 am  

      Heh Chairwoman.

      Thanks Don.


      Interesting to hear that local papers often have higher standards. Do you think that is because of their nature, as many local papers are distributed free, so they do not have to chase ratings as much (nor are they really in as much competition with other local papers)?

    12. Golam Murtaza — on 5th January, 2011 at 11:04 am  

      Rumbold, well there isn’t a lot of competition. The local paper I work for is the only publication of its kind in a news patch covering a population of 75,000. I’ve certainly never been in a media scrum before!

      Circulation figures and advertising revenues have been falling for years but there doesn’t seem to be the same impulse to cut legal and ethical corners in the local press as exists in national papers. When we do fall down on quality it’s usually because we’ve got pathetically low numbers of editorial staff and incompetent senior managers - not because we’re being deliberately unethical.

    13. Laban — on 5th January, 2011 at 6:48 pm  

      The blogger Edwin Greenwood at Dogwash coined a beautiful word for the press coverage :


    14. joe90 — on 6th January, 2011 at 10:53 am  

      The way the media went after Chris Jefferies is nothing new. Just ask muslims arrested in terrorism cases, the media coverage they receive they are 100% guilty before they even see a court room if the case’s even gets that far.

      the headline grabbing and desperation for ever decreasing sales figures will see news reporting heading the way of Fox news in America where even downright lies are sold as the truth.

    15. Kulvinder — on 8th January, 2011 at 5:54 am  

      We now have shitty US style journalism with the Mail now advancing its own ‘theories’ in the midst of an active police investigation.

      Whilst i understand such coverage has a place when the case has gone cold, carrying out a parallel investigation for the purposes of SEO hits is just incredibly shitty.

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