Friday 29 July 2011

'Witch hunts and character assassination'

Christopher Jefferies, the man arrested but released without charge in the Jo Yeates murder case, has accepted 'substantial' libel damages and apologies from eight newspapers.

The papers involved were the Sun, Mail, Mirror, Sunday Mirror, Express, Star, Daily Record and Scotsman.

Speaking outside court, Jefferies' lawyer Louis Charalambous said:

"Christopher Jefferies is the latest victim of the regular witch hunts and character assassination conducted by the worst elements of the British tabloid media.

"Many of the stories published in these newspapers are designed to 'monster' the individual, in flagrant disregard for his reputation, privacy and rights to a fair trial.

"These newspapers have now apologised to him and paid substantial damages but they do so knowing that once the conditional fee agreement rules are changed next year victims of tabloid witch hunts will no longer have the same access to justice."

It is worth remembering the coverage, which included him being labelled a 'Peeping Tom' and 'Professor Strange' and he was accused of being 'obsessed with death' and 'creepy'.

Another lawyer, Bambos Tsiattalou, who had advised Jefferies, stated:

"We warned the media by letter, immediately following Mr Jefferies' arrest, in the strongest possible terms to desist from publishing stories which were damaging or defamatory.

"We were dismayed that our warnings went unheeded and are pleased that the newspapers, in settling Mr Jefferies' claims, have acknowledged the extent of the damage to his reputation."

A few hours after those damages were announced, the High Court ruled the Mirror and Sun were in contempt over some of their articles on Jefferies which 'created substantial risks to the course of justice'.

The judgment (pdf) highlights the articles in question. First, the Mirror on 31 December:

On the front page of the Daily Mirror, in the context of what were described as the “Jo files” the headline alleged that “Jo suspect is peeping Tom”. It was asserted on the front page in large print:

“Arrest landlord spied on flat couple”, followed immediately below by:

“Friend in jail for paedophile crimes”, followed immediately below by:

“Cops now probe 36 –years old murder.”

In short, while positively asserting that Mr Jefferies was a voyeur, without directly asserting that he was involved in paedophile crimes or a long unresolved murder, the impression conveyed to an objective reader was that he was somehow linked with not one but two awful, additional crimes.

Then the Mirror the following day:

The front page banner headline asks “Was killer waiting in Jo’s flat?”. The story on the front page begins:

“Joanna Yeates’s killer may have been waiting for her inside her basement flat as she returned home. Detectives yesterday sent towels and bedding for DNA tests after finding no signs of a break-in”.

We observe that if entry was not forced, then whoever went into the flat had access to it. The only person with

And in the Sun, also on 1 January:

On the lower half of the front page of The Sun the headline reads “Obsessed by death” and it is alleged that Mr Jefferies “scared kids” by a macabre fascination. He wanted to show death to his pupils and was obsessed with it...

More significant, was the headline across pages 4 and 5 “Murdered Jo: suspect “followed me” says woman”. And this was followed by a lengthy article under the headline “What do you think I am…a pervert?” describing the “landlord’s outburst at blonde”. This was an “exclusive” story about a “former acquaintance” of Mr Jefferies who felt that she was being followed by him. The thrust of the story was that Mr Jefferies liked blondes – and Miss Yeates, too, was blonde - and she felt as though she was being followed by someone described as “quite a dominant personality”, a “control freak” who made her feel “very uncomfortable”.

In the view of the newspapers there was no risk to the course of justice because people would have forgotten what they had said about Jefferies:

The main focus of the written submissions by the defendants was that the articles did not create substantial risk of serious prejudice to any trial of Mr Jefferies which might take place in the future, probably some 9 months or so after publication.

The ruling states:

The material in the two publications of the Daily Mirror is extreme...In our judgment the two publications in the Daily Mirror created substantial risks to the course of justice. They constituted contempt under the strict liability rule.

It adds that although the effect of the Sun's articles:

is not as grave as that of two series of articles contained in the Mirror, the vilification of Mr Jefferies created a very serious risk that the preparation of his defence would be damaged. At the time when this edition of the Sun was published it created substantial risks to the course of justice. It therefore constituted a contempt under the strict liability rule.

Reflecting that judgment, the Mirror has been fined £50,000 and the Sun £18,000, although at time of writing the Mirror's publishers have said they will appeal.

Given that seven of the eight papers in the Jefferies case also paid libel damages to Robert Murat almost exactly three years ago, it's clear that certain newspapers have learnt nothing from this type of coverage.

Instead, when Jefferies was arrested, there was a disgraceful feeding frenzy in which each tabloid tried to out-do its rivals with even more extreme, prurient detail.

How did this happen? As Roy Greenslade asks: how did the lawyers at these papers let these stories be published in the first place?

Will the newspapers publish apologies to Jefferies with the prominence that he deserves? Will any of the editors involved take the time to explain themselves?

And will these papers act differently next time someone is arrested in a high-profile case?


  1. It is mentioned that the condition fees agreement rules are changing. Can anyone point me towards a website that explains how they are changing? I had a scout around on Google, but wasn't able to find anything useful.

  2. Excellent update, sir. In answer to your last question: nope. But we all knew that already.

  3. 50k. I expect the tick in sales as a result of this scurrilous coverage makes it worth the effort. Put the editors in jail for a week. That'll soon put a stop to it.

  4. Very surprised to see the Scotsman on the list, I have always held that paper in high regard and have never seen it as one to use dirty journalism. I shall keep a closer eye on it's articles in the future, this has dented my opinion of the paper. Not at all surprised to see the others though...full of scum.

    Well done to Mr Jeffries, hopefully this case will help lead to the downfall of the useless PCC, especially now that the PM is against it too.

  5. Yep, the sales helped by the headlines must exceed the fine. Really not good enough.


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