Monday, January 03, 2011

trial by fury

The government has confirmed that, to reduce costs, 93 magistrates courts will close this year. The announcement has been greeted with concern and disappointment by many in the criminal justice system, wondering what difficulties the shortfall in resource will bring. Perhaps closures of crown courts will follow, after all they and the magistrates courts spend a lot of time carrying out criminal trials, determining the innocence or guilt of those accused; verdicts that can be reached so much more cheaply by newspapers.

They are having a good go at it in the aftermath of the terrible and tragic killing of Joanna Yeates. Her landlord, a retired teacher, has been arrested and extensively questioned by police and this alone was seen as sufficient reason by newspaper editors to publish what they mistakenly think is damning evidence about him. A 'wild-haired eccentric' said the Sun; 'Professor Strange' was the Daily Mail’s invented pseudonym. Perhaps Alice Cooper should beware a knock on the door; how did Patrick Moore avoid arrest for so many years ?

The Mirror gave us a detailed biography which, if anyone bothered to read it (and I can’t think why anyone should) was actually quite complimentary, but, ignoring its own text, headlined it as 'a bizarre past'. Most of the other papers have chipped in, providing in their totality a comprehensive but irrelevant profile: an oddball, a loner, a bit nutty, a private person, wealthy, posh, cultured, unconventional, unmarried, possibly gay, an only child and, closing the prosecution case with the breathtaking revelation that he has 'a fondness for polo-neck jumpers'. What a deviant; lock him up.

The Guardian punched hard, disclosing he was 'an active member of the Liberal Democrats', whilst the Independent exposed his 'idiosyncratic pronunciation of place names'. Former students of his have been questioned by the media, one telling that 'he would over-emphasise words and kept repeating them in an odd way; he would say things 10-15 times over.' A bit like the reporters on his case.

It seems many newspapers have made up their minds, if not ours, that he is not just helping police with their enquiries (as it used to be known) but is guilty of the crime. They have aired their pathetic evidence, using the past tense of an obituary, and encouraged the jury of hundreds of thousands of their readers to support their subjective and prejudiced verdict.

He may or may not be guilty; I have no idea, because he has not been charged, taken to court and either convicted or acquitted, depending on the evidence presented. If he is proven to be guilty then the newspapers will claim credit, but it’s not the way to do it. It could even backfire, as, given the publicity already received, any good defence advocate could make a persuasive argument that a fair trial might be impossible. If he, or anyone else, is ultimately convicted then let’s hope there is evidence more probative than personality, lifestyle and hairstyle. Let’s hope the killer is brought to justice, properly.

For now, the landlord has been released on police bail and the media should, and probably will, turn their intrusive attention to another topic. The police will continue their investigation, and should really try to preserve anonymity of suspects and helpers unless and until a charge is made. Trial by tabloid or broadsheet, based on speculation and defamation, is an insult to our intelligence and, more importantly, to the memory of Joanna and the feelings of her family.



At January 08, 2011 10:10 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well put. It is comical watching the media back-pedal now they realize their vilification of a potentially innocent individual might have been a 'little' hasty. The attempts to slope the blame for his treatment to the police and a wrongful arrest are transparent and pathetic. Personally, I think that if the whole episode concludes with Chris Jeffries being able to clear his name he should publicly take the papers and TV channels to task over their treatment of him. But then, who would give it coverage...?

At January 08, 2011 11:21 am , Blogger callitjustice said...

You are quite right. There is no real sanction against the media for their coverage and Jeffries would have great difficulty in pursuing any claim.


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