When did you last hear a news report you could trust completely? 

The media witch-hunt of Christopher Jeffries reminds us that in the rush to be first with information, compromises are being made

18 January 2014

9:00 AM

18 January 2014

9:00 AM

‘It put a lot upon us,’ said Christopher Jefferies’s aunt. ‘The ripples went on and did not stop for a long time.’ She was talking about the after-effects of the media witchhunt that skewered her nephew after his arrest in connection with the death of the Bristol landscape architect Joanna Yeates in December 2011. Jefferies was depicted as being almost certainly guilty because of his long, hippie-like hair, his bachelordom, his love of poetry and ‘culture’, his brusque refusal to speak to the press. Yet his only link with the crime was that he owned the flat in Clifton where Yeates lived. Saturday night’s Archive on 4 (Radio 4) reminded us of what happened to Jefferies and his family, and of some uncomfortable truths.

Who can honestly say they were not taken in by the press reports and news bulletins? Who did not also begin to think there was something not quite right about Mr Jefferies, and that he could well have committed the murder? I know I did — and was suitably mortified to discover he was in fact innocent. Why was I taken in? Because the media were united in their treatment of the story — the broadsheets were just as anxious as the tabloids to join in the character assassination. Because the photos on the front pages were selected to make him look unusual, different, even sinister. Because the facts about him were so carefully patched together to create a convincing portrait of a loner, a strange, distempered character, not at ease with the world.

The Leveson Inquiry Continues Into Culture, Practices And Ethics Of The PressChristopher Jefferies, who was wrongly accused of Joanna Yeates’ murder         Photo: Getty

When Jefferies was released from custody, his ordeal was actually only just beginning. He could not return to his own home for three months for fear of being doorstepped, or even attacked by someone who had merely read about him. His family, too, were subjected to gross intrusion. Who now can forget how he was once portrayed?

On the programme (produced by Geoff Bird), the journalist David Aaronovitch was anxious to point the finger of blame at the police, who he claims have ‘altered the way they describe things’, referring to the manner in which Jefferies’s arrest was announced. He was also keen to point out that it was on Twitter that the worst vilifications of Jefferies could be read, that he had first read about Jefferies on his Twitter timeline rather than in the papers, and that the role of social media in the campaign against Jefferies has been lost in the anxiety to place the responsibility firmly with certain newspapers. Weasel words. Could it not be that it was the journalists chattering on Twitter who first lit the fires that sent up so much smoke?

It’s not the first time an innocent person has been arrested; nor is it the first instance of the papers using such a story to sell copies by distortion, exaggeration and titillation. But there was something different about what happened to Jefferies; something much more vicious, and voyeuristic, which is to do with the medieval-style obsession with rumour, gossip, hunting down supposed offenders that has been generated by the advent of Twitter and the like. It’s also a consequence of the way news is reported on radio and TV just as much as in the papers. How often have you felt that a bulletin was not clear, or somehow told a story that did not quite fit together? How often have you heard an obituary-style feature on some leading figure some hours, or even days, before their eventual demise? How often have opinions been presented in a way that could be construed as certain rather than not sure? In the rush to be first with information, to not be overtaken or outdone, too many compromises are now being made.

On Radio 4 Extra this week you could have heard a repeat of Lee Hall’s extraordinary monologue Spoonface Steinberg (Monday) about a seven-year-old girl who is dying of cancer. I say extraordinary because of the amazing way in which young Becky Simpson took on the role of Spoonface (in 1997), talking so directly to the microphone, never wavering or adding unnecessary vibrato. No other voice is heard in 59 minutes of radio, except for the opera singers whose music pumps up the emotion in between each scene. Her performance did and still does make radio history, though I am not so sure about the script, which at times is excruciating in the way it lays upon the child the weight of adult emotions.

In a very different play on Radio 4 (also on Monday) Selma Dabbagh took us to Jerusalem and the difficulties faced by Rasha, a Palestinian Christian, as she attempts to go shopping across the checkpoint. The Brick was in comparison quite clumsy in places, with none of the clarity and sharp purpose of Lee Hall’s writing, yet I’ll not forget it soon. Partly this was because it took me to the Middle East, to the politics, atmosphere, sounds of somewhere else (with some stirring music by Reem Kelani). But it was also the many small truths it sought to uncover, and the resonating voice of Sirine Saba as Rasha.

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