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
Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Manchester Gorton?

Will Labour lose in Manchester Gorton?

The death of Gerald Kaufman will trigger a by-election in his Manchester Gorton seat, which has been Labour-held since 1935.

Coming so soon after the disappointing results in Copeland – where the seat was lost to the Tories – and Stoke – where the party lost vote share – some overly excitable commentators are talking up the possibility of an upset in the Manchester seat.

But Gorton is very different to Stoke-on-Trent and to Copeland. The Labour lead is 56 points, compared to 16.5 points in Stoke-on-Trent and 6.5 points in Copeland. (As I’ve written before and will doubtless write again, it’s much more instructive to talk about vote share rather than vote numbers in British elections. Most of the country tends to vote in the same way even if they vote at different volumes.)

That 47 per cent of the seat's residents come from a non-white background and that the Labour party holds every council seat in the constituency only adds to the party's strong position here. 

But that doesn’t mean that there is no interest to be had in the contest at all. That the seat voted heavily to remain in the European Union – around 65 per cent according to Chris Hanretty’s estimates – will provide a glimmer of hope to the Liberal Democrats that they can finish a strong second, as they did consistently from 1992 to 2010, before slumping to fifth in 2015.

How they do in second place will inform how jittery Labour MPs with smaller majorities and a history of Liberal Democrat activity are about Labour’s embrace of Brexit.

They also have a narrow chance of becoming competitive should Labour’s selection turn acrimonious. The seat has been in special measures since 2004, which means the selection will be run by the party’s national executive committee, though several local candidates are tipped to run, with Afzal Khan,  a local MEP, and Julie Reid, a local councillor, both expected to run for the vacant seats.

It’s highly unlikely but if the selection occurs in a way that irritates the local party or provokes serious local in-fighting, you can just about see how the Liberal Democrats give everyone a surprise. But it’s about as likely as the United States men landing on Mars any time soon – plausible, but far-fetched. 

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