If it isn’t bad enough that there exists a state in the west of “trial by media”, that is, where newspapers, radio and TV news get to decide somebody’s guilt based purely on supposition, willingness to believe they are guilty of something because of their character quirks, and invented stories just for an attention grabbing headline.
Call it trial by media, mob rule or a good old-fashioned witch hunt of people because they are a little odd, but the tragic murder of a young, attractive, professional woman by the name of Joanna Yeates who lived in one of the country’s most affluent areas (Clifton in Bristol) led to a second tragedy when her landlord was arrested and falsely accused of her murder. Not only that, but his reputation was dragged through the mud by major newspapers who painted a picture of a sexual deviant and predator, a peeping tom, a weirdo, a homosexual who was once friends with a paedophile. None of this was true, but nobody cared because he was a little bit odd – so it was all fair game. He’s creepy so lock him up.
Yeates disappeared on the night of 17th December 2010 and her body was found on Christmas morning less than five miles from her home. Her landlord, Christopher Jefferies gave a statement to the Police which somehow got leaked to the press. What we witnessed shortly afterwards was a rather shifty looking Mister Jefferies marching down the street away from a Sky News reporter who hounded him about the contents of his statement. This aroused the suspicion of the Police and when they took him in for questioning, his pedantic nature, quirky personality and inability to recall what he did on the night of Yeates’ disappearance, cast suspicion on him.
None of which would have happened had the media not already decided his guilt purely and entirely on the basis that Jefferies is a bit of an oddball and a bachelor. It would take until near the end of January before a second man was arrested and charged with her murder – this second suspect was the culprit, he was a neighbour and a much younger man whom Yeates’ knew well enough to let him into her flat. His name is Vincent Tabak and he is presently serving 20 years for her murder. Shockingly, Tabak gave false information to the Police that added to the suspicion surrounding Jefferies.
Over the last two nights, ITV viewers in the UK have finally seen a dramatisation of the side of the story of this man falsely accused of killing Yeates. The drama portrayed a retired English lecturer who enjoys French cinema, attends night classes at his old college, is involved in the local church and has interests in life that are not always the norm – even for a man of his age. We saw a picture of an oddball, but a harmless one, a man who preferred his own company. Undoubtedly, Jefferies was a strange character but that doesn’t make him guilty of anything other than being a non-conformist who preferred his own company.
The trial, and how the media handled it, came under close scrutiny in The Leveson Inquiry (which was initially set up in light of the Phone Hacking Scandal) and Jefferies was invited to be a part of that. During the Inquiry, the pursuit of Jefferies was referred to as a “witch hunt” and a “feeding frenzy”. Anybody who remembers the media headlines and stories about Jefferies from just four years ago will agree with that assessment. Several newspapers were charged with perverting the course of justice in their influence of public opinion. For his part, Mister Jefferies successfully sued a number of newspapers and ITN were banned from Police press conferences for a short time.
The Attorney General instigated legal proceedings against certain elements of the media – including no fewer than nine newspapers, an unprecedented number, as things were perceived as having been that damaging to the case. Even the grieving boyfriend of Joanna Yeates had a few choice words for how much the media distracted the case in pointing the finger at an innocent man for so long. Not only had he lost his girlfriend, but everyone had decided their innocent landlord was responsible – someone whom the couple would have had daily contact.
Having now seen the drama series, it demonstrates perfectly to me just how powerful “Creep Shaming” is to blackening a man’s name, how recklessly we use the terms “creepy” “weird”, “loner”, “odd ball” and how easily those words stir mob rule. For a full evaluation of the media’s portrayal, see here. When feminists especially say that they only creep-shame men who deserve it and therefore it is always justified, here we have a clear demonstration of how that is largely untrue. We all bought into Jefferies’ guilt purely and entirely because of his character. After all, few would have suspected the young, professional, friendly (and attractive because we know that good looking men don’t do nasty stuff like rape and murder) Vincent Tabak when we had a real life weirdo we can pin it all on? The closing moments of the drama last night made this very point – nobody suspected Tabak because he was so normal.
Christopher Jefferies may be an exceptional case, but it is not an isolated one.