Lessons to be learned from the Chris Jefferies case

The reporting of Joanna Yeates’s murder rode roughshod over legal convention.

"Weird, posh, lewd, creepy" – this was how a Sun headline described Chris Jefferies, the landlord of Joanna Yeates, the Bristol landscape architect, after his arrest on suspicion of her murder. The Sun and other papers published compendious details of his character and personal habits. They included no evidence that Jefferies, who was later released on police bail, had committed murder but showed, to the papers' satisfaction, that he was just the sort wot would have dun it, which, in their view, should be quite sufficient to secure conviction.

This kind of coverage is now routine in high-profile criminal cases. The Contempt of Court Act 1981 is clear: reporting is restricted after an arrest lest "the course of justice" be "seriously impeded or prejudiced". The convention, widely followed until quite recently, was that newspapers published the barest factual details: name, age, occupation, marital status and so on. The idea was that juries should base verdicts solely on evidence presented in court. Jefferies used to teach English at a public school, so "posh" might pass muster, but "lewd" and "creepy" surely carry at least a risk of prejudice if he were ever tried.

Over recent years, the police, the government, the courts and the Press Complaints Commission have allowed and even colluded in what amounts to a complete rewriting of legal convention. Occasionally, an attorney general warns the newspapers to "reflect carefully", as Dominic Grieve did the other day, but most journalists, particularly on the red-top papers, regard reflection as akin to masturbation.

The 1981 act should be enforced, as, curiously, it is in Scotland, where errant editors and journalists are frequently hauled before judges and even local editions of English papers are more circumspect in what they publish. We are told that nothing can stop prejudicial details circulating on the internet. That may be true, but the Attorney General needs to consider only the likelihood that potential jurors will read and be influenced by them. Newspapers, whether in print or online, still carry an authority and command an audience that no single blog, tweet or Facebook entry can possibly match.

This is an extract from Peter Wilby's column in this week's New Statesman, available on newsstands from today.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

Getty
Show Hide image

Brexit campaign publishes private phone numbers of Eurosceptic rivals

Leave.EU hate the EU and hate Vote Leave who also hate the EU. What could go wrong?

Remember Leave.EU? Not to be confused with Vote Leave, which is the pro-Brexit group led by one of the former mayors with Hitler tourettes, or with Grassroots Out, which was the group with the neon green ties, or with UKIP. Even though Grassroots Out, UKIP and Leave.EU are all funded by Arron Banks, a multi-millionaire with interests in the British Virgin Islands who lives in a mansion once owned by the prog rock musician Mike Oldfield. Glad that’s all clear.

Anyway, Leave.EU still exists, even after Vote Leave was designated as the official Leave campaign – spending more of its time attacking the conduct, tactics and key figures of Vote Leave rather than, you know, that big EU thing they’re supposed to hate so much.

One of their main sources of frustration is Vote Leave’s refusal to have UKIP leader Nigel Farage as its representative in any of the EU debates. So, obviously, rather than pressing their case through normal channels, Leave.EU did what any respectable organisation would, and emailed the private phone numbers of senior figures at the BBC and Vote Leave out to its entire mailing list.

Which, needless to say, upset those people. Douglas Carswell sent a message asking for his number to be removed, so of course Leave.EU published that too.

No wonder the Brexiters are so opposed to international cooperation when they can’t even keep the peace on their own side. 

I'm a mole, innit.