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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Leader: Mourning in Manchester

Yet another attack shows we are going to have to get to used to the idea that our liberalism and our freedoms can only be preserved by a strong state.

Children are murdered and maimed by a suicide bomber as they are leaving a pop concert in Manchester. As a consequence, the government raises the terror threat to “critical”, which implies that another attack is imminent, and the army is sent out on to the streets of our cities in an attempt to reassure and encourage all good citizens to carry on as normal. The general election campaign is suspended. Islamic State gleefully denounces the murdered and wounded as “crusaders” and “polytheists”.

Meanwhile, the usual questions are asked, as they are after each new Islamist terrorist atrocity. Why do they hate us so much? Have they no conscience or pity or sense of fellow feeling? We hear, too, the same platitudes: there is more that unites us than divides us, and so on. And so we wait for the next attack on innocent civilians, the next assault on the free and open society, the next demonstration that Islamism is the world’s most malignant and dangerous ideology.

The truth of the matter is that the Manchester suicide bomber, Salman Ramadan Abedi, was born and educated in Britain. He was 22 when he chose to end his own life. He had grown up among us: indeed, like the London bombers of 7 July 2005, you could call him, however reluctantly, one of us. The son of Libyan refugees, he supported Manchester United, studied business management at Salford University and worshipped at Didsbury Mosque. Yet he hated this country and its people so viscerally that he was prepared to blow himself up in an attempt to murder and wound as many of his fellow citizens as possible.

The Manchester massacre was an act of nihilism by a wicked man. It was also sadly inevitable. “The bomb was,” writes the Mancunian cultural commentator Stuart Maconie on page 26, “as far as we can guess, an attack on the fans of a young American woman and entertainer, on the frivolousness and foolishness and fun of young girlhood, on lipstick and dressing up and dancing, on ‘boyfs’ and ‘bezzies’ and all the other freedoms that so enrage the fanatics and contradict their idiot dogmas. Hatred of women is a smouldering core of their wider, deeper loathing for us. But to single out children feels like a new low of wickedness.”

We understand the geopolitical context for the atrocity. IS is under assault and in retreat in its former strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa. Instead of urging recruits to migrate to the “caliphate”, IS has been urging its sympathisers and operatives in Europe to carry out attacks in their countries of residence. As our contributing writer and terrorism expert, Shiraz Maher, explains on page 22, these attacks are considered to be acts of revenge by the foot soldiers and fellow-travellers of the caliphate. There have been Western interventions in Muslim lands and so, in their view, all civilians in Western countries are legitimate targets for retaliatory violence.

An ever-present threat of terrorism is the new reality of our lives in Europe. If these zealots can murder children at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, there is no action that they would not consider unconscionable. And in this country there are many thousands – perhaps even tens of thousands – who are in thrall to Islamist ideology. “Terror makes the new future possible,” the American Don DeLillo wrote in his novel Mao II, long before the al-Qaeda attacks of 11 September 2001. The main work of terrorists “involves mid-air explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative.”

Immediately after the Paris attacks in November 2015, John Gray reminded us in these pages of how “peaceful coexistence is not the default condition of modern humankind”. We are going to have to get used to the idea that our liberalism and our freedoms can only be preserved by a strong state. “The progressive narrative in which freedom is advancing throughout the world has left liberal societies unaware of their fragility,” John Gray wrote. Liberals may not like it, but a strong state is the precondition of any civilised social order. Certain cherished freedoms may have to be compromised. This is the new tragic narrative.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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