>The media’s destruction of a previously anonymous Bristolian landlord gives cause for anyone who hasn’t recently commited a murder to worry. Westerneye looks at a modern day witch hunt.
The murder of Bristolian architect Joanna Yeates made headlines around the world, and shocked many in her local area of Clifton.
The case received far more coverage than the murder of Karol Krawczyk, a 31 year old Polish man killed just 10 days before Yeates. Sadly this will not come as a surprise to anyone who has ever opened a British newspaper; Yeates was a successful, attractive, graduate, living in an affluent area with her partner. She was blonde, British, and popular. Unfortunately in media terms, she was the perfect victim.
But for every perfect victim, there must be a perfect villain. At least there should be. It is after all 2011. With all the technology at our disposal catching a criminal, should be easy, right?
Often though a culprit is not immediately, if at all, forthcoming. 2011 it may be but that has not stopped the media from embarking in a medieval witch-hunt. Welcome to infamy Chris Jefferies.
Before Christmas, Jefferies was an unknown Bristol landlord and former English teacher. His hairstyle, whilst certainly slightly eccentric, was certainly never compliant with his supposed credentials as a murderer. Hairstyles are rarely a decent indication of homicidal intent. Not that the British media were about to let that stop them.
When first a senior officer, and then a judge, granted the police more time to question Mr. Jefferies, the media went into hyperbole overdrive.
The Sun, which has, let’s face it, never been a bastion of decent fact-based journalism ran with “The Strange Mr Jefferies: Kids’ nickname for ex-teacher suspect”.
At school there was a female history teacher, nicknamed “Itchy green-beard”. I met her some years later, and was perplexed to discover that she was not sporting a beard, nor any kind of uncomfortable looking facial hair and was in fact thoroughly pleasant. God help her if she gets arrested for a crime she didn’t commit though, because apparently the churlish nicknames children give to their teachers is now acceptable headline material.
Needing to beat their rivals at The Mirror, who ran with “Jo suspect is peeping Tom” (winner of my award for “best use of quote marks to cover your own arse”) The Sun followed up with the blunt “OBSESSED WITH DEATH”.
Surely a statement this presumptuous must have something concrete to back it up. Something, you would think, more concrete than the fact that former English teacher and graduate Jefferies’ likes the works of 19th century poet Christina Rossetti. Unfortunately not. Rossetti is the closest link between Jefferies and murder that the media could unearth.
She may have been a little macabre at the best of times, but likening Rossetti fans to murderers, is akin to calling anyone who enjoys the works of John Betjeman a pervert because he once said “with hard excitement to her breast” (amongst others). Go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect libel compensation.
The line of argument seemed to be “Of course he’s guilty, just look at him!” Look at him? We couldn’t help but look at him. For three days his face was everywhere. In fact, most of Britain has had a horrifically up-close insight into the life of a man whose life has been destroyed by careless, cavalier journalism and slander. Albeit slander protected by quotation marks and consistent use of the word “alleged”.
What we saw occurring, time and time again was three tenuous arguments, rehashed and angled to say different things. Looks a bit like Professor Wheeto? Serial killer. Blue rinsed hair? Must be guilty. Former Neighbourhood Watch vice-chairman? Net-curtain twitching peeping Tom.
Yet there is a contradiction inherent in this argument. If we are to believe the media, Jefferies arrest caused mass panic. The way in which he was portrayed led many to presume his guilt. Yet Ipsos MORI, one of the UK’s leading research companies, reported that trust in journalists in 2009 was just 19%. With this distrust in mind, why was Jefferies immediately presumed to be guilty by so many? Hysteria is a hard thing to quantify, and if, as the media would have us believe, a state of hysteria surrounds the murder, it seems odd that a statistically sceptical public would believe what was printed in the press.
Perhaps this article misses the point. Perhaps the public did not presume him instantaneously guilty. Yet the more the press hammered home the message, the more we seemed inclined to fall for it.
The scariest thing about all of this, is not the total defamation of an innocent man, nor the horrendously invasive methods and tone of the media, but how easily this information was obtained. To remove ourselves from the Jefferies case momentarily, and focus on this through an entirely selfish prism, think how the media could portray you.
Like a drink occasionally? No you don’t, you’re a “problem binge drinker”. Ever been arrested? You’re now a “seasoned criminal”. Smoked a joint? 2Habitual drug user”. Every little facet of your personality can be picked apart, savaged and repackaged from a new angle. Even the most studious, hard working individual becomes a “sullen loner”. It is truly petrifying to thing of the smear campaign that could be so easily constructed against almost anyone.
We can only hope that Jefferies, who has become an auxiliary victim in an already disturbing crime, can take some comfort from the case of Robert Murat, the British man initially questioned in relation to with the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in 2007. Murat was continually hounded by the British press, and in particular The Daily Mirror, and though he was eventually cleared and awarded £600,000 in compensation, his name will forever be synonymous with a case he had no real involvement in.
It seems appropriate to leave the final words to Greg Reardon, Miss Yeates’ boyfriend. “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.”
For a man under so much pressure, his integrity is something the majority of journalists could learn from.