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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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