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
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Is the Great Fire of London a blueprint for how governments deal with disasters?

Visible leadership, an established authority, and a common external enemy: an enduring defence mechanism 350 years on.

In 1968, the science journal The Lancet ran a report into human behaviour. When populations are confronted with disaster, it recommended, effective “communications, coordination, and control, and the establishment of a recognised authority” are of utmost importance (advice that should have been heeded immediately after the Brexit result in June this year).

The 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London this week seems is a good time to think about how we deal with disasters: over 13,000 homes were destroyed, 87 churches ruined and thousands of Londoners displaced.

For me, one of the most striking parts of the story of the Great Fire is not the fire itself nor the dramatic rebuilding programme that followed, but the state of flux in between.

When the fire broke out, England was at war with both the Dutch Republic and France. As soon as news reached France, the Venetian ambassador Alvise Sagredo, declared that the fire would be “worse than the plague and any other disaster, capable of making [the English] change their government and their principles”.

In England, even the London Gazette warned that England’s foes would try “to persuade the world abroad of great parties and disaffection at home against his majesties government”. Faced with unparalleled destruction and unprecedented disarray, how did the king, his advisers and civic authorities regain control of London?

With the Guildhall severely damaged and the Royal Exchange destroyed, the first step was to find a new base for civic and mercantile power. On 6 September, Charles II instructed the Lord Mayor and the city aldermen to resume governance of the city. Gresham College and buildings around Bishopsgate were taken over and efforts were immediately taken to re-establish trade. Vendors were granted permission to set up sheds in temporary markets at Bishopsgate Street, Tower Hill, Smithfield and Leadenhall Street.

“Honest and able persons” were selected to monitor the ruined city to ensure fire did not break out afresh, appeals were made across the country for charitable donations and neighbouring counties were called upon to provide sustenance. From the navy stores, ship’s biscuit was offered to the needy and canvas was provided so that the tens of thousands of homeless people stranded in the fields surrounding London could fashion tents.

The measures were not perfect. Visiting Moorfields, the diarist John Evelyn described, “the poor inhabitants . . . some under tents, some under miserable huts and hovels, many without a rag”.

Those stranded found food to be in short supply and many succumbed to the illnesses bred by a reduced condition in life, including aged playwright James Shirley, who died in October 1666.

But it wasn’t long before people started to disperse – either leaving London altogether, finding accommodation elsewhere, or returning to the locations of their former homes and shops to erect makeshift shacks above the ruins.

In the background, the trial and execution of French watchmaker Robert Hubert, who falsely claimed to have started the fire, provided a focus for any anger and rage.

With communication ruptured following the destruction of the London Gazette printing house and the General Letter Office, rumours of plots, arson and invasions had spread almost as quickly as the fire itself. Indeed, terrible violence had broken out during the fire, with mobs targeting any “strangers” or foreign-born Londoners. One French servant, for example, reported how gangs of “English women did knock down strangers for not speaking good English. Some of them armed with spits, some with bread staffs, and the captain with a broad sword.”

When the London Gazette was released the week after the fire – after only skipping one edition of its biweekly run – it provided readers with a detailed description of the catastrophe, emphasising its accidental nature and promoting the role played by Charles II and his brother and heir, James, Duke of York, in preventing the fire spreading even further.

Against protocol, the newspaper also allowed important tradespeople to advertise their new offices: the goldsmith-bankers, for example, informed readers that they had found premises along Broad Street.

By mid-September, the etcher Wenceslaus Hollar had already begun his survey of the city and plans had been submitted to the king from John Evelyn and architects Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, to name just a few, as to how to rebuild the capital.

Writing at the time, Sir Nathaniel Hobart, believed that the “rebuilding of the Citty will not be soe difficult as the satisfying all interests, there being many proprietors”. As such, one of the most important innovations following the disaster was the establishment of a judiciary, known as the Fire Court, to untangle the complex web of formal and informal agreements between tenants and landlords. From 1667 until 1672 the Fire Court settled hundreds and hundreds of cases.

There were certainly many bumps along the way – for a while, the City of London was plundered and inhabited by gangs. Plus, anger towards foreign-born Londoners continued; owing to his Dutch background, one Johan Vandermarsh had to fight tooth and nail to keep hold of his property on Lime Street, despite helping to save many of his neighbours’ homes.

All of this considered, there was nothing like the widespread disorder that Charles II had feared and his enemies expected. On the contrary, the visibility of the king and his brother and heir – and the convenient suspicion that the fire had been started by an external enemy – worked to bind the people to their king and settle unrest. Although hard to believe at the time, there was also the promise of “a more beautiful city”.

Rebecca Rideal is a historian, factual television producer and author of 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.

She will be speaking at London’s Burning festival on Friday 2 September – a contemporary festival of art and ideas produced at Artichoke to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. Free to the public, it runs from 30 August-4 September.