"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.