Christopher Jefferies, the man wrongly arrested by police in the hunt for the murderer of Joanna Yeates, has given a graphic account of how he was vilified by the press.
The retired teacher, who was Miss Yeates’s landlord, was libelled by eight newspapers following his arrest on suspicion of her murder.
Police later exonerated Jefferies and he then successfully sued eight newspapers for libel.
Two national newspapers, The Sun and The Mirror, were prosecuted for contempt of court for their reporting of the episode.
The former Clifton College teacher described how some of the newspapers painted him as a “dark, macabre, sinister villain” having mistakenly believed that because he had been arrested on suspicion of murder he must be the killer.
He also lambasted some of the reporting of the murder inquiry as “lazy and casually inaccurate”.
Jefferies said: “The press seemed determined to believe both; that the person who had been arrested was the genuine murderer and to portray me in a dark and lurid a light as possible.
“We’re talking about the tabloid press here so just to be a sexual predator isn’t quite spicy enough.
“The papers seemed to want it in every possible way. Low and behold you don’t just have a sexual predator but you have a bisexual predator and all sorts of fantastic rumours were latched onto that I would hold pupils hands while reading poetry, obviously with sinister sexual motives.
“To complete the character assassination it was alleged that I was fascinated by death because I happened to have shown on a couple of occasions a particularly important documentary about the liberation of Auschwitz.
“Here you have me, this dark, macabre, sinister villain. And that certainly wasn’t the whole of it.
“Jo was always the landscape architect, to reinforce a career cut short. On the other hand, the caricature of me was a lewd figure, a peeping Tom that repeatedly spied on tenants and a loner because I happened to live alone.
“Even those papers couldn’t entirely ignore the fact that a lot of people actually said some quite nice things about me, although tended to be buried and not given much prominence in the articles.”
‘An extreme case’
Jefferies was speaking at the Benn Debate, organised by the Bristol branch of the National Union of Journalists in conjunction with the Bristol Festival of Ideas and two charities, MediaAct and MediaWise.
“Mine was an extreme case but by no means unique,” he said.
“One of the things that did strike me was how extraordinarily lazy and casually inaccurate the reporting was on almost every level: the fact the police were supposed to be ripping up the floorboards when the flats in question had solid floors and there wasn’t a floorboard in sight.
“Often the relationship between the press and the police can be mutually beneficial. Because of the nature of the reporting in this case in no doubt served to encourage the police in their belief that they may have caught the actual murderer.
“Certainly it was quite striking that during the interrogation of me while I was in custody the police were particularly interested in some of these fantastical stories that were being reported.”
Jefferies, who has twice appeared before the Leveson Inquiry into press standards, is currently taking legal action against Avon and Somerset Police for wrongful arrest.
One member of the audience asked him why he had remained on bail for some time after Vincent Tabak was charged with Yeates’s murder.
“I think Vincent Tabak was charged around the January 20. I wasn’t officially released from police bail until early March,” Mr Jefferies said.
“Whether that is unprecedented I don’t know. I’m sure it’s highly unusual.
“All I can do is give you the explanation that the police gave me which was that they wanted to be absolutely certain that if somebody was to come along on some future date and say: Oh well, we do actually think that this man was in some way involved in the disappearance and murder of Jo Yeates.
“We want to be 100% certain we can say: No we have investigated every possible line of accusation and we are satisfied there is no truth in what you are alleging.”
Jefferies was asked if he accepted that explanation, and he replied: “Well I am not sure I can answer that question because there is still ongoing legal action between myself and Avon and Somerset Police.”
Sat alongside Jefferies at Friday night’s event at the Arnolfini arts centre was Lord Hunt, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, Thais Porthilho-Shrimpton, co-ordinator of the Hacked Off campaign, Richard Peppiatt, a former Daily Star reporter, Mike Norton, editor of the Bristol Evening Post, and Steve Brodie, a journalist with BBC Points West.
Donnacha DeLong, president of the National Union of Journalists, chaired the event.
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