Although many months have passed since landlord Christopher Jefferies was bombarded with negative headlines after being wrongly arrested on suspicion of murdering Bristol landscape architect Joanna Yeates, one suspects he’s still struggling to recover, despite winning a six-figure libel payout from eight newspapers.
All eyes were on the Police during the icy cold Christmas period who were under extreme pressure to make progress in a case that pulled the heartstrings of the nation. Despite the implausibility of a stick-thin landlord who owned two up market flats and taught in elite schools for 20 years suddenly ‘going bonkers’, let alone overpowering a bubbly young woman, Jefferies was taken in for questioning. We cannot blame the Police for this mistake, they had to check every corner and were already being criticised for failing to make a breakthrough.
Of course the arrest unleashed a tidal wave of negative stories, presumably sourced from calling up ex-pupils, colleagues and tenants of the beleaguered suspect. Stories appeared referencing his ‘blue hair,’ long fingernails, and obsession with poetry – one paper even became suspicious when he emerged from his flat with – a Waterstones shopping bag. Of course every journalist on the case forgot to mention that Mr Jefferies was an English teacher. To their credit, fellow bloggers such as Mark Wallace were first to raise eyebrows on the coverage, reminding reads that a suspect is innocent until proven guilty.
In summary, the libel ruling made specific reference to the Daily Mirror, for its most extreme stories on the case. Ironically, the Mirror secured many of the genuine scoops in this case and were often first on the scene, this was however spoiled by ridiculous stories about Chris Jefferies not wanting tenants to have curtains up, this making him a ‘Peeping Tom’.
Many recognised the harsh parallels between this and the case of Robert Murat who arguably suffered even worse defamation during the disappearance of Madeline McCann in Portugal several years ago. Although winning around half a million pounds in damages, it’s hard to believe that a man who was only trying to help in the search will ever recover from headlines such as, “Sweaty Murat was breathless and excited over case.”
Unfortunately when you mix Police pressure, public anger and the white hot heat of journalism in an environment where you have to do everything to get the scoop, there will be other victims. Chris Jefferies isn’t the first Robert Murat, but he certainly won’t be the last.