"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.
Sign of the Times
One other, much smaller, aspect of the murder reports struck me. The Times, quoting David Yeates, Joanna's father, began: "Speaking at his £600,000 home in Hampshire . . ." It is by no means unusual in any type of story for newspapers to include such a figure, though it is nearly always, as in this instance, entirely irrelevant.
When I started in journalism more than 40 years ago, editors instructed me to inquire as to age, occupation and so on but not house value. In fact, I have no idea how reporters go about it. Do they ask the owner, ring an estate agent or just guess? Newspapers must have decided that this was essential information at some point over the past 30 years, during which time house prices became a national obsession and, perhaps even more reliably than occupation, signifiers of status. Most papers reveal the value of more expensive properties only; one rarely reads of someone speaking from a £95,000 home. In the Yeates case, the point, I suppose, is to convey to Times readers that someone rather like themselves is involved.
The VAT rise to 20 per cent is a good issue for Labour, as it can honestly say that it has never increased the rate. Indeed, in 1974, a year after the tax was introduced at 10 per cent by a Tory government, Labour cut it to 8 per cent. But Ed Miliband's soundbite - "the wrong tax at the wrong time" - won't quite do. What would be the right tax? The conventional left response - higher-rate income tax, corporation tax, bankers' bonus tax - doesn't convince when labour and capital are so mobile and such taxes are so easily avoided. The left needs new taxes, preferably of a kind that most voters think other people will pay. If Miliband can find and advocate taxes that are both practicable and popular, the next election will be in the bag. He might even become a hero of social democracy, ranking with Franklin D Roosevelt and Clement Attlee. As regular readers know, I have always had high ambitions for him.
After Christmas, the media carried a spate of stories about rubbish that, in some areas, went uncollected for a month or more because the usual holiday disruption and the big freeze.
Nothing upsets the British more than disturbance to refuse collection, whether the cause is bad weather, strikes, spending cuts or an attempt to reduce the amount sent to landfills. A middle-class gathering, in my experience, can easily talk about nothing else for two hours. But now we have the "big society". Shouldn't somebody - the Prime Minister, say - tell the whingers to take their rubbish to the local tip and pick up waste from their elderly and disabled neighbours while they're about it? Go on, Dave, I dare you!
Food for thought
Ministers have given their imprimatur to a scheme, costing £250m, to hand out £50 discount vouchers for healthy food. Companies such as Mars, Nestlé, Kellogg's and Asda are paying for the vouchers, which can be used on, er, their own products.
If these companies are associated in your mind with unhealthy food, you haven't been keeping up. Kellogg's, for example, cut the salt in its corn flakes by a third last year after prolonged pressure from medical campaigners. There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repenteth. But I would be interested to see a comparison between the estimated sales uplift that these companies will get from free government publicity and what they'd get from a normal £250m marketing spend.
Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005.