Media vultures are homing in on private lives – but at what cost?

Coverage of the most recent developments in the Joanna Yeates case prompts the question: will the me

A new feeding frenzy in the Joanna Yeates murder case has brought more unsettling speculation – and more attention to an otherwise ordinary street in Bristol.

I tend to watch Sky News with the volume muted – it's often the best way to enjoy it. Devoid of commentary, yesterday's pictures from the HD Skycopter, lazily circling the block of flats where Jo Yeates lived, took on an eerie, almost stalker-like quality. The helicopter whirled around and around, almost in the expectation that something was going to happen – but nothing did.

It was just the same few shots, again and again. Some houses, one covered in scaffolding, but not a human form in sight. All so banal, so lacking in any activity, it could have been any street, anywhere. A recently erected tarpaulin – to allow investigators to get on with their job in peace, or possibly to avoid the kind of scrutiny that saw ITN banned from a press conference a couple of weeks back – was the only clue that anything might be in any way unusual.

The Skyvulture didn't wheel around to show us the part of the picture which would have been extraordinary rather than mundane: the persistent cluster of reporters we knew to be standing in Canynge Road, describing what they thought (but couldn't really see) was going on behind them. Yet I suppose it is the ordinariness of the setting for this murder mystery that has captured the interest of the public from day one – along with the photogenic, middle-class victim, the chatter on Twitter and Facebook, and, sadly, the way in which one suspect's life was turned upside down.

Chris Jefferies – who was labelled as "weird", "lewd", "strange", "creepy", "angry", "odd", "disturbing", "eccentric", "a loner" and "unusual" over the course of just one article – faced trial in the papers, on charges of being somewhat unorthodox and having blue hair, of having read poetry, of having been a teacher. But he was released without charge.

The mystery trundled on, and camera crews still popped up in Canynge Road to detail each fresch development, each little twist and turn, each cough and spit of the investigation. And now, after a new arrest, they are back, filming the flat where no one lives, a place where someone used to live, and a possible crime scene. Pictures of nothing, images of no one, footage of a static building. There's something verging on the surreal about it, but we all know why they are there. If the Skycopter had X-ray eyes, we'd be looking through the walls.

Any faint hopes that the papers may have learned their lesson about "innocent-until-proven-guilty" (or even the slightly more obvious "innocent-especially-when-not-yet-charged-with-anything") have disappeared this morning. Police advice to be mindful of the Contempt of Court Act doesn't seem to have worked. It's more of the same, just with a different face for us to inspect, a different person – a foreigner! – held up for us to make knee-jerk judgements about and decide whether he's guilty or not, in the absence of evidence.

The tabloids will not heed the police advice to be cautious; they will publish what they like, when they like. Are they bravely acting in the public interest or shamelessly acting as a pack, regardless of whether it might prejudice a trial or wreck an innocent person's life in the meantime? Whatever the ethics, interest in the case is still strong and many papers have been sold on the back of it. The cameras are still there, in Canynge Road, waiting outside that familiar building, waiting for it to reveal its secrets.

The time when a family can get justice, or move on and grieve in private (and when those who may have been wrongly accused might get justice, too) still seems a long way away. But when this does die down and the Skycopter moves on to a new place, Canynge Road will return to being just another street somewhere. And we will all forget it: the pictures that seemed so important, the place that has dominated our news, the broken lives left behind.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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