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30 July 2011updated 17 Jan 2012 8:52am

The press will not learn from the Chris Jefferies case

Changes to "no win no fee" actions could make the press even freer to say what they like about high-

By Steven Baxter

Chris Jefferies’ appalling treatment, for which he received substantial payments and apologies from eight newspapers yesterday, and for which two of those publications were fined for contempt of court, was just the latest in a long line of mob attacks by the press. And sadly there is no reason to suppose that this kind of behaviour will be ended by yesterday’s events.

The former landlord of murder victim Jo Yeates was placed under suspicion when a couple of statements he made to the media didn’t add up, leading to his arrest — and then it was open season, all papers scrambling to dig the dirt on his background. Mr Jefferies, whose appearance and lifestyle was seen as unorthodox enough to raise eyebrows, was described as “weird,” “lewd,” “strange,” “creepy,” “angry,” “odd,” “disturbing,” “eccentric,” “a loner” and “unusual” in just one article in the Sun. But it wasn’t just one newspaper doing this.

The insinuations and juxtapositions continued over the ensuing days — the Daily Mail asked “COULD THIS MAN HOLD THE KEY TO JO’S MURDER?” next to a large photograph of Mr Jefferies, who lived in the same block of flats (and as landlord presumably had a key to her property). But Mr Jefferies had did not hold the key to the murder; he was entirely innocent. Before that could be ascertained, his whole life was laid bare.

It has happened before – and it will probably happen again. Colin Stagg’s photograph was placed next to the words “NO GIRL IS SAFE — RACHEL MURDERER WILL STRIKE AGAIN” by the Sun; Robert Murat wrongly had the finger pointed at him by the press when Madeleine McCann disappeared in Portugal, before Kate and Gerry McCann were placed under similar suspicion. The McCanns and Murat received payments from the papers who published the offending tales, but many of the same titles were also responsible for the coverage of the Jefferies case. Perhaps they hadn’t learned.

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Stagg’s name was also found in the files of infamous News of the World investigator Glenn Mulcaire, while the McCanns’ spokesman Clarence Mitchell has also spoken with officers investigating phonehacking.

It wasn’t all newspapers, of course, and it should be stressed that most court cases in most news stories are reported responsibly and carefully by journalists who take professional pride in getting the facts right. But in a small proportion of cases, where there is such a feeding frenzy over the story and such huge public interest, something seems to happen, and something seems to change. Instead of the usual careful rules about what can and can’t be reported, it becomes a free-for-all, an arms race to find as much out as possible about particular suspects in high-profile cases.

A significant enough proportion of the national daily press have been caught up in the Jefferies case to imply that serious errors of judgement were made when publishing the stories about him, though that is the most optimistic way of looking at the situation.

We live in an age when the old media claim to be the voices of calmness and reason amid the storm, comparing themselves favourably with the lawless frontier towns and torch-wielding Twittermobs of social media. And that is frequently true. But eight of the country’s newspapers got it wrong — so wrong they were forced to apologise to a man whose character they had attacked and whose reputation they had wrecked overnight, just for the sake of “a good story” which turned out to be wrong and misleading.

Mr Jefferies’ solicitor had a chilling point to make in the wake of yesterday’s events, saying “victims of tabloid witch hunts will no longer have the same access to justice” after the “no win, no fee” rules on legal action change next year. If that is the case, our press may be freer than ever to say what they like about suspects in high-profile trials. Given the lessons of the past, it may be too much to hope that certain sections of Fleet Street will use that freedom wisely, or that they will have learned from what they did to Chris Jefferies.