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.

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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.