Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday, 2 January 2011

The media need to stop these witchhunts

I have no idea if Christopher Jefferies had anything to do with the death of Joanna Yeates. He has been released on police bail today after 3 days of questioning. The problem is that some of the media coverage of the last few days would make you think that he has already been tried, convicted and is on his way to the gallows.

Mark Wallace wrote an excellent blogpost a couple of days back which highlighted how the "fact" that Mr Jefferies was a posh loner seems to have been enough in the minds of most of the press to consider him guilty already at least in the tone of their coverage.

Just look at some of the ridiculous nudge-nudge, wink-wink comments in the coverage:

The Mirror: "He showed almost no interest in cars or sport". As if this is relevant in the slightest to whether he is guilty of murder. It seems a calculated ploy to make it seem like he is outside of the mainstream, or at least the "mainstream" as narrowly defined by the tabloid press (i.e. blokes like cars and sport and if they don't they are dodgy).

The Telegraph: (From an unnamed former tenant): "On several occasions he even entered our flat unannounced.". There are a few of my previous landlords that the police might want to bring in for questioning too in that case.

And The Mirror again from the same article linked to above. An unnamed woman running a shop said: "He came in recently and wanted to buy a black apron with the words ‘little black apron’ written on it. He was most insistent we get it. When the apron didn’t come in for a time you could tell he was bothered.”. I think that might go down as the most irrelevant piece of information related to a suspect of murder I have ever read. How on earth has that got anything to do with the case?

It seems Jefferies is getting the same treatment as Tom Stephens did initially in the Ipswich Ripper case (when it turned out that he had nothing to do with the murders but not before his reputation had been left in tatters by the press) or Robert Murat who was arrested in connection with the disappearence of Madeleine McCann in Portugal back in 2007 only to later be cleared of suspicion but again his life was shattered by the coverage of him being a "weirdo" and "loner". Spotting a pattern yet?

I am greatly heartened by some comments made by Joanna Yeates' boyfriend Greg Reardon and read out at a press conference where he directly commented on the media coverage:

"The finger-pointing and character assassination by social and news media of an 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."

He is absolutely spot on. Also, as I have seen commented more than once, it is actually dangerous for the media to follow witchhunts like this. If Mr Jefferies is ever brought to trial it is going to be difficult to find 12 people who are not already prejudiced in some way by the media coverage. Indeed the Attorney General Dominic Grieve has already commented to this effect and is clearly concerned about it.

This has to stop. Freedom of the press is a vital part of our democracy but they have to be more responsible in their reporting. I suspect that in the end if they do not do this themselves, they will be forced to do so by law. We cannot go on with the principle of "innocent until proven guilty" being so comprehensively trashed over and over again.

NOTE: I have slightly changed the wording at the start of this post following a suggestion by a commenter who then deleted their own comment that it might have previously been a bit too loosely worded.


John said...

The Press sometimes reminds me of the playground - anyone seen as `outside the norm` is seen as fair game for bullying.

It's amazing how you can trace the timeline of LGBT acceptance and its fallout with other people.

`He showed almost no interest in cars or sport` - used to mean `he's a poofter`

Now it means `he's dodgy`

The idea that people can live blameless lives and be DIFFERENT is alien to the narrative.

Mind you, I'm sure journos live their lives totally in the mainstream!

claude said...

Spot-on, Mark.

martijn said...

Spot-on indeed.

I also wonder why it is in the public interest to publish the name and photographs of the suspect. (In fact, one may wonder whether it is the public interest to publish them even after someone has been fouind guilty.)

Dan said...

Well said the tabloids seem to go mad at any potential suspect in these cases, but at the same time seem to ignore entirely other cases.