Friday 31 December 2010

Innocent until proven guilty

The father of murdered architect Joanna Yeates has said he's "relieved" that someone has been arrested in connection with his daughter's death. However, this understandable emotion is as nothing compared to the relief felt by hacks at the Sun when they first laid eyes on the man who, at the time of writing this post, is still being questioned by the police:

The 1981 Contempt of Court Act forbids newspapers from publishing anything that may cause a "substantial risk of serious prejudice" in any future trial. However, that hasn't stopped a great many tabloids (with the Sun usually front and centre) digging up (or making up) dirt about anyone who is ever held in connection with any high-profile crime.

Although the authorities are usually unwilling to take action on such issues (the papers all retain in-house lawyers who make sure such coverage sails on just the right side of the contempt laws), they have had their fingers burned by such "journalism" in the recent past.

Two years ago four national newspaper groups (News International, the Mirror Group, Express Newspapers and Associated Newspapers) paid out hundreds of thousands of pounds in libel damages to Robert Murat, one of the early suspects in the disappearance of Madeline McCann. Eleven newspapers published a series of lies and smears as they sought to portray him as just the kind of person who would be involved in the abduction of the Leicestershire toddler.

I have absolutely no idea whether or not Chris Jefferies murdered Joanna Yeates - as I type this he hasn't even been charged, yet alone tried. But a little thing like the presumption of innocence isn't going to stop Britain's finest journalists telling millions of readers (and potential jurors) the "truth" about the former teacher.

The Sun goes on:

JOANNA Yeates murder suspect Chris Jefferies was last night branded a creepy oddball by ex-pupils, a teaching colleague and neighbours.

Weird-looking Jefferies, 65, who was Jo's landlord in Bristol, taught English at the city's exclusive Clifton College for more than 35 years.

Former students claimed yesterday that the blue-rinse, long-haired bachelor, who police arrested yesterday, used to make sleazy comments and invite them to his home. One recalled: "He was very flamboyant. We were convinced he was gay.

"You didn't want him to come near you. He was very unkempt and had dirty fingernails. He was weird. He was a stickler for discipline and very traditional. He used to get very angry and shout and throw books and pens across the room. He kept repeating words in an odd way."

The student also said of cultured Jefferies: "He loved old English poetry. The way he talked, the way he walked and the way he acted - it was all very strange."

A second student said: "He was fascinated by making lewd sexual remarks. It was really disturbing."

A third added: "It was commonly assumed that he was gay. It was treated as an open secret. All sorts of rumours used to fly around about him."

Another student told how groups of up to ten pupils were invited to Jefferies' home.

The mum of two, who was a 16-year-old boarder at £28,000-a-year Clifton in the 1980s, recalled: "The evenings would take place towards the end of the week, normally a Friday. My parents didn't know I went. The conversation didn't exactly stick to the curriculum. He was very eccentric, odd and could be described as a loner. We all thought it odd that a man his age didn't have a wife and had blue-rinse hair."

None of these comments are attributed to a named individual. There are some positive comments about Mr Jefferies, but these are tucked away at the bottom of the article after two pages of anonymous smears and the utterly irrelevant observation that:
"Jefferies bought a flat in the block where 25-year-old Jo lived from a paedophile who was jailed for enticing a young boy there for sex ... Fellow teacher Stephen Johnston used the ground-floor flat to groom the pupil for three years. Jefferies bought it in 1999."

To round up, the paper wants to leave you in no doubt that Mr Jeferries is a creepy, strange, lewd, angry, dirty, disturbing man who had a habit of inviting groups of boys back to his house - a house where a convicted paedophile once lived. It's pretty clear what conclusions the Sun's "journalists" want you to draw from this.

Yesterday the BBC carried quotes from several neighbours who described Mr Jefferies (note that the Sun loses the "Mr" - something usually reserved for criminals in their crime reports) as a "pillar of the community", but the Sun is too busy trying to smear an (officially) innocent man and titillate its readers to bother giving much room to such unhelpful comments.

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