Chris Jefferies: Only press fines can prevent trial by media

"My story was a readymade Midsomer Murders script set in a respectable and leafy suburb," says man f

"My story was a readymade Midsomer Murders script set in a respectable and leafy suburb," says man falsely accused of Joanna Yeates's murder.{C}

Only imposing fines on offending newspapers could prevent a repeat of the trial by media endured by Chris Jefferies, according to the victim himself and Lord Hunt, the chair of the now-defunct Press Complaints Commission.

Speaking at the 'Hacked To Bits' Benn Debate on journalism in Bristol last night, Jefferies concluded: "If we're to avoid statutory regulation then the new PCC must have sanctions at its disposal so severe that compliance to the highest possible standards must be compelled."

It was a view endorsed by Lord Hunt, who last month decided to dissolve the PCC in its current form and open consultation as to its new structure. He said: "What we need is a regulator. The PCC is not a regulator - it has no power to investigate, or to request documents. But I don't want to seek a precedent in restricting good journalism.

"Everyone agrees that we need a new regulator, with teeth. Editors are worried about [the new PCC having the power to fine] but when you look at the cases which have happened, I think we have to look back and say 'What should have happened to stop that arising in the first place?'"

The debate, chaired by Donnacha De Long of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), brought together voices from across the industry, including local journalists Steve Brodie of Points West and Mike Norton, editor of the Bristol Evening Post, as well as Richard Peppiatt, the former Daily Star journalist who resigned over Islamophobic news coverage, and Thais Portilho-Shrimpton, the co-ordinator of the Hacked Off journalism standards campaign.

Jefferies, libelled by eight newspapers - two of which were also found in contempt of court over their coverage - explained how he had been demonised by the press when he found himself arrested on suspicion of the murder of his tenant Joanna Yeates. Vincent Tabak, Yeates's next-door neighbour, was convicted of the killing last summer, after Jefferies had been the subject of huge intrusion into his private life.

He recalled: "If you think back to end of 2010 and last year, the story was something of a gift to the tabloids. It was a readymade Midsomer Murders script set in a respectable and leafy suburb.

"I was the person who had been arrested and the press seemed determined to believe the person who was arrested was the murderer, and to portray me in as dark and as lurid a light as possible.

"Journalists will talk to 100 people and if 99 say one thing and one says something they would like to believe or will enable them to write the story they want to write, that is the one they will choose to believe.

"The caricature for me was the lewd figure, a peeping tom, I had apparently spied on tenants, I was a loner because I happened to live alone. A lot of people said some nice things about me but they tended to be buried and not given enough prominence in the articles."

When asked how he felt about the coverage at the time, Jefferies said: "At the time all this was taking place I was unaware of it, as I was in custody. For some time afterwards I didn't see any of it, as friends I was staying with said, 'you don't want to see this, it wouldn't be a good idea to read it.' It was some time after the event I did start to look at these articles.

"Even today I haven't been able to bring myself to read everything.

"Things would have been different if I hadn't had so many supportive freinds, and I have to say I am extraordinarily touched by the fact I am not infrequently approached by people I don't know who say kind and supportive things.

"Mine was an extreme case but it was by no means unique. Some of the reporting was so extraordinarily lazy and casually inaccurate. There were reports that the floorboards of the house were being ripped up, but it has solid floors."

On the relationship between the press and police, the subject of the second phase of the Leveson Inquiry, he said: "Often the relationship between press and police can be mutually beneficial but because of the nature of this case, it served to convince the police they had caught their murderer. During interrogation the police were particularly interested in these fantastical stories that were being reported."

The debate viewed a BBC report from Brodie on the Joanna Yeates murder inquiry, in which it was revealed that innocent Ikea delivery workers, who had delivered furniture to the flat a month before the crime, were confronted by tabloid newspapers after they were interviewed by police. Somehow, their mobile phone numbers and their addresses had been found.

However, Brodie had concerns about the future of regulation. He said: "I really do worry about further legislation. We're already the libel capital of the world. Chris Jefferies correctly sued newspapers for libel, and nobody in this hall would say he wasn't right to do so, but the same law is used by organisations to stop proper journalism.

"I have (BBC) guidelines in a very thick book and we do regulate ourselves internally, and we have the Trust above us. But I don't think Fleet Street would self-regulate; it's not in their nature."

Ex-Daily Star reporter Peppiatt said that the character of tabloids had changed from newspapers to entertainment products. He said: "It's regarded as being a bit snobby to question the tabloid agenda, but world events have really dropped down the agenda. Gone are the days when the Daily Mirror was a thrusting investigatory newspaper. . . A lot of people are saying 'this is what people really want'.

"It's been forgotten that newspapers shouldn't be corporate products to make as much money as possible but they are also there to serve a public interest. At Leveson some speakers defended celebrity coverage by saying that 'celebs collude wih us'. What's astounding is that they're quite happy to admit they'll set up faux romances and present it to their readers, who they say they care about so much, as if they're real events."

Portilho-Shrimpton said that it wasn't regulation but the practices of the industry itself that were the biggest threat to journalism. She said: "Mail Online is the news equivalent of a battery farm; only a small proportion of the stories are from the newspaper," adding that talented reporters were "being turned into professional rewriters and uploaders".

"Hacked Off is sometimes accused of trying to muzzle the press. The press should be free to go after stories. However, if the stories turn out not to be true then their behaviour should be challenged."

"The work of Leveson is extremely important. Lord Justice Leveson fears his report will end up in the same way as [the Calcutt report of 1990], roundly ignored. I hope by the end of this we are able to lead this debate - it's not either state regulation or it's not - and there are all kinds of things in between. Hacked off and the Media Standards Trust are coming up with ideas, and we do hope that in conjunction that in the end what wins is the industry, journalism and freedom of the press."

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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The Tories play Game of Thrones while the White Walkers from Brussels advance

The whole premise of the show is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

If you’re a fan of asking “who’s that, then?” and “is that the one who killed the other one’s brother?”, I bring great news. Game of Thrones is back for a seventh series. Its vast assortment of characters was hard enough to keep track of before half of them got makeovers. But now the new Queen Cersei has reacted to the arrival of the long winter by investing heavily in the kind of leather ball gowns sold by goth shops in Camden, and Euron Greyjoy, once a fairly bland sailor, has come back as a Halloween costume version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, all eyeliner and epaulettes.

The show’s reliance on British character actors is the only thing keeping me vaguely on top of the cast list: what’s Diana Rigg up to these days in Highgarden? And what about that guy who was in Downton Abbey that time, who now has the scaly arms? (Luckily, the next thing I watched after the Game of Thrones series premiere was the first two episodes of the revived Twin Peaks, which put my confusion into perspective. There, Agent Cooper spent most of his time talking to a pulsating bladder attached to one of those fake trees you get from Ikea when your landlord won’t let you have real plants.)

The day-to-day business of Game of Thrones has always been power – answering the question of who will sit on the Iron Throne, forged by Aegon the Conqueror from the swords of his defeated enemies. But its backdrop is a far bigger threat: the arrival of a winter that will last many years, and the invasion of an army of the undead.

That might seem like an unkind way to think about Michel Barnier and his fellow Brexit negotiators – inexorably marching towards us, briefing papers in hand, while Liam Fox frantically rings a bell at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel – but nonetheless, the whole premise of Game of Thrones is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

The current internal Conservative struggle for power might be vicious but it is at least familiar to its contestants; they know which weapons to deploy, which alliances are vital, who owes them a favour. Meanwhile, the true challenge facing every one of them is too frightening to contemplate.

In 2013, this magazine celebrated the early success of the show with a cover depicting one of our terrifying painted mash-ups: “The Tory Game of Thrones.” Our casting has been strangely vindicated. George Osborne was our Jaime Lannister – once the kind of uncomplicated bastard who would push a child out of a window but now largely the purveyor of waspish remarks about other, worse characters. Our Cersei was Theresa May, who spent the early seasons of The Cameron Era in a highly visible but underwritten role. Now, she has just seized power, only to discover herself beset by enemies on all sides. (Plus, Jeremy Corbyn as the High Sparrow would quite like her to walk penitently through the streets while onlookers cry “shame!”)

Michael Gove was our Tyrion Lannister, the kind of man who would shoot his own father while the guy was on the loo (or run a rival’s leadership campaign only to detonate it at the last minute). Jeremy Hunt was Jon Snow, slain by the brotherhood of the Night Shift at A&E, only in this case still waiting for resurrection.

The comparison falls down a bit at Boris Johnson as Daenerys Targaryen, as the former London mayor has not, to my knowledge, ever married a horse lord or hired an army of eunuchs, but it feels like the kind of thing he might do.

We didn’t have David Davis on there – hated by the old king, David Camareon, he was at the time banished to the back benches. Let’s retrospectively appoint him Euron Greyjoy, making a suspiciously seductive offer to Queen Cersei. (Philip Hammond is Gendry, in that most of the country can’t remember who he is but feel he might turn out to be important later.)

That lengthy list shows how Conservative infighting suffers from the same problem that the Game of Thrones screenwriters wrestle with: there are so many characters, and moving the pieces round the board takes up so much time and energy, that we’re in danger of forgetting why it matters who wins. In the books, there is more space to expound on the politics. George R R Martin once said that he came away from The Lord of The Rings asking: “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” (The author added: “And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”)

Martin’s fantasy vision also feels relevant to the Tories because its power struggles aren’t about an “endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes”. Instead, everyone is flawed. In Westeros, as in the Conservative Party, it can be difficult to decide who you want to triumph. Sure, Daenerys might seem enlightened, but she watched her brother have molten gold poured down his throat; plucky Arya Stark might tip over from adorable assassin into full-blown psychopath. Similarly, it’s hard to get worked up about the accusation that Philip Hammond said that driving a train was so easy “even a woman” could do it, when David Davis marked his last leadership campaign by posing alongside women in tight T-shirts reading “It’s DD for me”.

The only big difference from the show is that in real life I have sympathy for Barnier and the White Walkers of Brussels. Still, maybe it will turn out that the undead of Game of Thrones are tired of the Seven Kingdoms throwing their weight around and are only marching south to demand money before negotiating a trade deal? That’s the kind of plot twist we’re all waiting for.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder