Interview: Chris Jefferies tells Hacked Off about his ordeal, Leveson and hopes for press reform
When Chris Jefferies was woken up by police offices on the morning of December 30 2010, he had no idea he was about to be arrested in connection with the murder of his tenant, Joanna Yeates. Dog walkers discovered her body on Christmas Day. She had been strangled and her body dumped three miles from her home.
Jefferies had been helping the police with their enquiries after Joanna was reported missing and had provided them with two statements. What was unknown at the time, although soon to become all too clear, was his image and allegations about his work and personal life were to be luridly splashed across the front pages of several national newspapers.
He was arrested on suspicion of the murder and questioned for three days while officers and a forensic team raided his house. Jefferies was finally cleared as a suspect and released on bail in March 2010. Vincent Tabek, Yeates’ neighbour, was found guilty of the murder that October.
Last year Jefferies successfully sued eight newspapers – the Sun, Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror, Daily Record, Daily Mail, Daily Star, the Scotsman and the Daily Express – over their coverage of his arrest and received substantial libel damages. The Sun and Mirror were also referred to the Attorney General and found in contempt of court for articles including “The strange Mr Jefferies” (Sun) and “Jo suspect is peeping tom” (Mirror).
In November 2011, Jefferies gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry. He told the chairman how his life had been irreparably changed by the events of December 2010, a result of his monstering in the national press. He returned this year to give evidence on module 2, the relationship between the press and police, as he is currently in the middle of legal proceedings against Avon and Somerset police for wrongful arrest.
He tells Hacked Off: “The whole of the action against the police is not essentially different from the action against the press, because it was as a result of the police action that all sorts of innuendos and calumnies and whatever else appeared in the press.
“As far as I am concerned they don’t escape the sort of responsibility that the press have had to accept, and until that particular chapter is over and there has been some form of vindication there, one is very much still in the process of, as far as one can, restoring the reputation that was destroyed.”
Several people passing through the Leveson Inquiry witness box since Jefferies have been questioned on his treatment by the press. Daily Mirror editor Richard Wallace publicly apologised to Jefferies and explained police had told the paper, off-the-record, that they were confident “Mr Jefferies was their man”.
Jefferies says: “That did mean something because Louis Charalambous [his solicitor] took the troubled to email me and comment on it, and said really it was quite striking that [Wallace] said what he did, because he went considerably beyond than what perhaps he was being invited to say by the counsel for the inquiry. I thought that that did actually carry some weight.”
The former chairman of the PCC, Sir Christopher Meyer, although not with the commission during the Joanna Yeates coverage, dismissed questions the PCC had failed to protect Mr Jefferies, and told inquiry counsel Robert Jay QC “you’re not going to lead me down that path”.
Jefferies says: “One thing that I thought was pretty disgraceful was when Sir Christopher Meyer was talking to the inquiry and merely shrugged [off] the failure of the Press Complaints Commission to do anything, really just shrugged that off and said ‘[journalists] are fallible human beings, there are bound to be mistakes’. I thought that was both insensitive and irresponsible.”
Current PCC chairman Lord Hunt has now met with Jefferies, as he has done with several other victims of press intrusion, to discuss his plan for a future press standards body.
“The meeting with Lord Hunt was very encouraging”, says Jefferies.
“It is obviously important that all newspapers sign up to this, that the code is suitably robust and that editors no longer have anything to do with policing themselves. Perhaps the most encouraging thing from my point of view is that he appears to see my experience as a test case for his proposals – nothing remotely like it must be allowed to happen again.”
“I very much agreed with the concerns that Lord Justice Leveson obviously had to make certain that whatever was put in place was not only as robust as it can possibly be but also left no opportunities for loopholes, because obviously Lord Hunt at the moment anyway is using the carrot more than the stick in order to get proprietors and editors to agree with him. People in my position are certainly going to want to make absolutely certain before they endorse such proposals that there’s going to be absolutely no opportunity for editors and proprietors to walk away from their responsibilities in the future.”
Jefferies makes it clear he wants to move on from the experiences of the last two years, but while his action against the police is on-going, he continues to live in a state of limbo.
“It is something that continues to loom extremely large as far as what I am able to do otherwise is concerned. These events have meant that eighteen months of my life which could have been devoted to other things, have very largely had to be taken up with coping with the aftermath of something that I had absolutely no responsibility for.
“If all the momentum which has gathered around this and other similar things really does result in a sea change as far as the press in concerned then I think that significant good will have come out of it, so that is very much what I hope and it’s certainly I think the sort of attitude that friends and relatives have taken. It was extraordinarily painful at the time but it may well be that something positive does happen as a result.”
Speaking at the Benn debate held by the Bristol NUJ last week, Jefferies described being painted in the media as a caricature, a lewd, peeping tom that spied on his tenants.
“If you think back to end of 2010 and last year, the story was something of a gift to the tabloids. It was a ready-made ‘Midsomer Murders’ script set in a respectable and leafy suburb.
“I was the person who had been arrested and the press seemed determined to believe the person who was arrested was the murderer, and to portray me in as dark and as lurid a light as possible…Even today I haven’t been able to bring myself to read everything.”
He tells Hacked Off he will never fully recover from the events of that December, despite receiving a huge amount of sympathy and support from friends, family, and often, complete strangers.
“I am quite certain that the sort of coverage that happened always leaves some residue behind. I don’t think that it would be rational to think otherwise.”
“We have been here on a number of occasions before, there have been high profile cases and people have said lessons have been learned and it won’t happen again – lo and behold it does happen again and each time it happens it seems to happen in an even more explosive and intemperate way than ever.”