Vigilante Journalism


On 17 December, landscape architect Jo Yeates, from Clifton, Bristol, went missing. Her body was discovered some miles away, in North Somerset, on Christmas Day. She had been strangled. It’s a terribly sad story.

The next day, Yeates’s landlord, Chris Jefferies, a retired school teacher, was arrested. His photograph was all over the news and many newspapers and tabloids have run stories about his eccentricity.

It’s absolutely fucking disgusting. First and foremost because he should be assumed to be innocent before proven guilty. Yet most of the news reports seem to be treating him as guilty. As a result, it strikes me as most unlikely that he could possibly have a fair trial. If he were Yeates’s murderer, the risk is that he could get off because justice cannot be done. If he isn’t the murderer, they are destroying his reputation and, I hope, opening themselves up to many millions of pounds in damages. Second, though, it’s a horrifying glimpse of what middle England thinks makes someone a vile, creepy eccentric.

Look at this revolting article from The Sun (it's an archived copy of the page, no traffic to Murdoch). Chris Jefferies was ‘obsessed with death’. Evidence? He showed schoolchildren Alain Resnais’s 1955 masterpiece Night and Fog, a documentary about the Nazi concentration camps. What other evidence? Well, he was also ‘particularly fascinated’ with The Moonstone. Yes, the sick-minded death-loving weirdo had the temerity to enjoy a classic nineteenth-century novel by Wilkie Collins. I am writing to Penguin Classics, demanding they withdraw this literary nasty from their list. Other reports have claimed that the evil twisted pervert enjoyed the work of Christina Rossetti. I have checked on Wikipedia and apparently she is herself also dead: very suspicious. Where was morbid oddball Chris Jefferies in December 1894, I wonder?

Apparently this adds up to an ‘academic obsession’ with death, which in the headline becomes ‘obsessed by death’. What kind of person doesn’t think about death? Doesn’t think it is part of living an reflective life to consider death from all sides, and draw on documentary, literature, poetry to help us come to some emotional accommodation with this mystery? Perhaps The Sun would care to list a few great works of literature that sunnily refuse to acknowledge any of the darker sides of life.

This isn’t the only evidence of his twisted lifestyle, of course. Damningly he had a blue-rinse and cultivated the kind of aloof teacherly eccentricity that all teachers do. He was an ‘oddball’ and was ‘flamboyant’ which as we all know are psychopathic conditions extensively documented in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Elsewhere in the article we hear that he invited a class to his flat for a book reading and, suspiciously, nothing ontoward happens. How devious, how sinister. Exactly what a killer would do.

Who knows whether they have accurately quoted his neighbour, Peter Stanley, who appears to have made his mind up already. If Jefferies is cleared, that’s going to make for a cheery meeting of the Neighbourhood Watch.

And note, right at the bottom of the article, ‘Jefferies has been arrested on suspicion of strangling Jo following "concerns" about his statement. But detectives are yet to find any evidence linking him to the crime.’ YET TO FIND ANY EVIDENCE. Oh but the tabloids have found plenty. He likes nineteenth-century poetry. String the fucker up.

Yesterday, Jo Yeates’s parents and her boyfriend, Greg Reardon, released moving statements. The tabloids focused on the moving comments of the parents and most of them downplayed Reardon’s ballsy and righteous remarks. Here they are:

Jo's life was cut short tragically but the finger-pointing and character assassination by social and news media of as yet innocent men has been shameful.

It has made me lose a lot of faith in the morality of the British Press and those that spend their time fixed to the internet in this modern age.

I hope in the future they will show a more sensitive and impartial view to those involved in such heart-breaking events and especially in the lead-up to potentially high-profile court cases. 

God forbid, but if I had to make such a statement, I hope I would have the moral and mental strength to make such a level-headed assessment of the coverage. I notice the neither The Sun nor The Daily Mail mention this part of his statement. The Mirror lies and says his comments were aimed only at ‘internet ghouls’ and makes no mention of the ‘morality of the British Press’. 

The tabloids are just trying to sell papers, we are told. Yes, it’s considered a defence to say ‘I know we’re damaging the chances of a fair trial and destroying a man’s reputation, but you must remember we aim to make money out of doing so’. In fact, of course, they are revealing the very worst kind of sloppy thinking, mean-minded suspicion and cynicism, and a deep hatred of any kind of difference. 

I have no idea, of course, whether Chris Jefferies strangled Jo Yeates, but I do know that right now he should be treated as innocent - even if he did it - and the behaviour of these newspapers is a disgrace. The Contempt of Court Act 1981 allows for unlimited damages and does not require any intent for an offence to be committed. I hope it is invoked.