Sunday, 2 January 2011

Read all about it

I fail to see why the entire private life of a murder suspect is seen as public property as soon as the finger of suspicion is pointed at them.

Why do the media feel entitled to dig all this stuff up and linger on all the colourful details as if they are of huge importance?

We've had columns and columns of titillating gossip about Chris Jefferies, landlord of the flat rented by the murdered landscape architect Joanna Yeates. His eccentricities, his blue-rinsed hair, his confirmed bachelorhood (nudge nudge, wink wink), his love of discipline.

Of course I'm as fascinated by all this tittle-tattle as everyone else. I won't pretend I ignore it all. I love to read the intimate details of other people's lives and draw dodgy conclusions from them.

But why should Mr Jefferies' life be laid bare and spread out before us in page after page of newsprint, as if he no longer has any right to privacy or common decency?

He is a suspect in a murder case. He may be guilty, he may be totally innocent. He hasn't yet been charged or taken to court. But because the police have taken an interest in him, he is somehow assumed to be ripe for a no-holds-barred journalistic striptease.

All we need to know is that he's a suspect, the police have questioned him, and he was Joanna's landlord. The rest is just gratuitous prattle.

Perhaps when the journos have finally scoured the bottom of the barrel, and told us what kind of underpants he prefers, how often he picks his nose, and where he buys his toilet rolls, boredom will set in and they'll be on their way, sniffing out someone juicier.

They just don't know where to stop.

Pic: Chris Jefferies

PS: Joanna's boyfriend, Greg Reardon, has said: "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."

PPS: Monday morning. Police have said Joanna's killer is still "on the loose" and have effectively admitted that Chris Jefferies is innocent. Mr Jefferies is now considering legal action against the police.


  1. Nick,

    I love the phrase "journalistic striptease," and you're right. He should not be tried in the press before he is tried in court, if that should come to pass.

    That said, today's newspapers, at least here, are owned by corporations the heads of which only care for profit and sales. Very few journos want to upset this arrangement and risk losing their jobs. This, combined with shifting attitudes towards what constitutes privacy and the so-called "right to know," adds up to a lack of ethics and the sensationalism that today sells papers.

  2. e - Absolutely, profit and sales are unfortunately what count. The media loves anything salacious or shocking and will produce all sorts of bogus "public interest" excuses to justify printing it.

  3. Such trial by media is increasingly getting to be the rule rather than the exception here too. In India it is due, I think, to a highly competitive media, particularly the television channels. The print media has had its share too but not as vicious as the former. Innuendo catches attention I guess!

  4. And of course no newspapers turn up evidence that would point to the suspect being innocent anymore...

  5. Ramana - Trial by media indeed. They can't actually suggest he's guilty but they're adept at presenting every detail in a way that makes it sound suspicious and incriminating.

    Macy - They very seldom imply innocence, and usually only when the person themself has run a campaign to prove they're innocent.

  6. ...and it prejudices the case.
    Like you, I am fascinated by gossip, but I know it's wrong.

  7. We are all complicit in this lowering of journalistic standards and lapping it up.
    I remember the days when my parents wouldn't touch a copy of "News of the World" for instance.
    Try as I might my sinful indulgence is to check out the headlines in the Daily Mail every day, a total rag.
    We all look for the downfall of the mighty don't we?
    Don't we?
    Oh I'm alone then?

  8. Scarlet - Even if we're drawn to the gossip, at least we should read it with an open mind and not instantly assume guilt or innocence.

    W3 - I also remember the days when the NOW wouldn't be touched with a bargepole. The Daily Mail headlines? Ooh you maverick you, I only read it when I'm at my mum's, she devours it religiously.

    No, I don't look for the downfall of the mighty unless they're so corrupt and incompetent they deserve it.

  9. Joanna Yeates' disappearance was on the tv, while I was at work (they've got a large tv installed in the reception area).

    It was heartbreaking to see the devastated parents pleading for their child's return.

    I switched off when her body was found. Simply because life isn't cut and dried and trial by media isn't of any interest to me. The landlord is an easy target, he isn't pretty or conforms to 'normal' and so sticking 'guilty' on him isn't difficult.

    Whether he did it, well that remains to be seen.

  10. Roses - Switching off all the coverage is a sensible move. After all, who will know the truth until the end of the court case (if there is one)? As you say, Mr Jefferies is an easy target because he ticks so few of the Regular Guy boxes.

  11. I wonder if there would have been less speculation if his appearance had been a little less eccentric?

  12. Suburbia - I think you're right, his eccentricity was leapt on by the media, who always suspect eccentrics of being not just a bit whacky but hiding a Monster Within.

  13. can you imagine sitting in a jury box in about 12 months time and being asked if you know anything about the case in front of you. Faded half remembered details gleaned from a newspaper or seen on TV are sure to colour your thinking.

    All we need to know is that someone is being questioned. The press should be sued for such intrusion.

  14. Of course it happens here but to a lesser degree. It's not allowed to 'accuse' a suspect simply because it does taint the presumption of innocence and makes jury selection impossible in the event a suspect comes to trial. Usually, the suspect will be mentioned but their face pixelled out and their name not revealed until charged. The media still loves to hound them though.

  15. So much for innocence until proven guilty. Seems like the press reverses that and feels the subjects of their stories are guilty until proven innocent. By then, lives have been destroyed.

  16. Always pisses me off that if the newspapers have to retract this bombardment it's a page 6 small type 2 liner VS their Page 1 Bold 32 typeface font

  17. Grannymar - Exactly. With the best will in the world, how could a juror forget everything the media revealed? Or worse, they could confuse media stories with what they've actually heard in court.

    Baino - Wow, the Oz laws are much stricter than here. Face blanked out and name not revealed until the person is charged. That's excellent, just what we need to knock some sense into the media.

  18. Secret Agent - Precisely, guilty until proved innocent is the media's guiding principle. They regard the concept of fair play as an obstacle to be sidestepped.

    Quickie - Too true, the corrections are often so tiny you'll miss them if you're only skimming the pages. Perhaps all corrections should be on the front page - or at least page 2 or 3.

  19. I remember when I left high school I thought I might like to study journalism. I'm very glad now that I didn't. I can't imagine what it must be like nowadays, trying to get ahead in that field.

    The mad dash to be "first" with something, with ANYTHING, is so open to abuse.

    And of course, it always has been, since information began to be disseminated. But the glory and the danger of the internet!

  20. Megan - Not just the rush to be first with something, but the obsession with titillating details, most of which we don't need to know and have no "public interest" whatever. Also the desire to kick someone when they're down, and if that fails, kick someone when they're up.

  21. Oh, dear. Once the press starts salivating over someone, we are inundated with every personal detail about him/her. Unfortunately, all this makes it impossible for anyone to get a fair trial since he has already been convicted in the media.

  22. Heart - Salivating, just the word! As you say, how can anyone have a fair trial when all these lurid personal details are still circulating in the jurors' minds?

  23. I don't know anything about this case which is fine by me.

  24. Myra - Good for you. I'm sure you're not in the least deprived for not knowing all the petty minutiae of Mr Jefferies' private life.

  25. we had a case here where a woman was accused of murdering her newborn.
    she has now been convicted but one piece i read said that the judge was concerned that justice was not being done. the woman had lied throughout the investigation but jurors were reminded that while lying looks suspicious it does not constitute evidence.
    interestingly, when the conviction came down a number of people told me they had thought all along she was guilty.
    how can anyone expect a fair trial when minds are made up on the basis of a gut feeling

  26. Kylie - Odd, I would have thought lying does amount to evidence in that it suggests the unreliability of whatever the person is saying.

    If jurors think someone is guilty from the start, how can you have any confidence that they've assessed all the evidence fairly and objectively? That would surely be grounds for an appeal, except that the jurors wouldn't admit their prejudice publicly.

  27. i guess the media are just selling and feeding people's gossip needs or maybe they hope no one else falls foul, even though he has not been proven guilty

  28. Iani - The media always claim they print these things because of public interest, but what they really mean is prurient interest. Where is the public interest in snide innuendoes against a temporary suspect?