Saturday 1 January 2011

Ethics of Journalism

Don’t Call Me Dave has been shocked at the media reporting of the arrest of his former English teacher Christopher Jefferies on suspicion of murdering architect Joanna Yeates.

Murder is the most horrific crime possible and there is a natural public interest in this story, but under our tried and trusted system of justice, suspects are innocent until proven guilty. To date, Mr Jefferies has not even been charged let alone convicted. As the Attorney General has pointed out, there is now a real risk of any trial being prejudiced by this relentless coverage.

Whilst we expect the gutter press to dig up as much salacious material as possible, it is regrettable that even the self styled quality papers have decided to follow suit, rather than restrict themselves to factual reporting of the case.

Former colleagues and pupils have been quick to lend, or possibly sell, their names for a quote. “He was a bit eccentric” they all say. Well yes he was, but many teachers are. Being eccentric, however, does not make you a murderer.

“He dyed his hair blue.” Why is this relevant?

“We thought he was gay.” It is true that many of us did think so and perhaps he is but, again, why is this relevant? The Police have not stated whether there was any sexual element to the murder and, even if there was, it would not preclude gay men from suspicion. It is just a rather pathetic effort by lazy journalists to spice up a story rather than deal with the facts.

“He was a strict disciplinarian who would lose his temper in class.” Ask any parent prepared to spend £9,000 a term educating their children if they would like it any other way.

It is now being reported that Mr Jefferies bought the flat from a teacher of the nearby preparatory school who is currently serving a prison sentence for molesting a child. Well that’s it then. You’ve got him banged to rights. If you buy property from a convicted criminal, you must be a criminal yourself.

A huge emphasis has been placed on the fact that Christopher Jefferies once taught at nearby Clifton College. That he retired nine years ago is seemingly irrelevant for a media still fighting a class war. Every opportunity has been used to mention that it is a prestigious English public school. If a long retired teacher from a sink comprehensive was accused of a similar crime, would his former school receive such attention?

There is not a scintilla of evidence to link Clifton College to the crime, and it is manifestly unfair to undermine the school in this way and create an atmosphere of fear for parents and pupils.

If Christopher Jefferies is charged and convicted of the crime of murder, he will properly face the full force of the law and will deserve no sympathy from anyone, including the media. But until then, a slightly more responsible attitude to reporting would not go amiss.


baarnett said...

The fact he has been released (on bail) tonight strengthens your case, DCMD.

Don't Call Me Dave said...


Only the murderer knows whether Christopher Jefferies is guilty or not and whilst I find it hard to believe him capable of such a crime, I have not seen nor spoken to him for over 30 years. A person can change quite considerably in that period of time. Even the victim’s boyfriend has now spoken out against the reporting, which must also be very distressing for the family.

By all means, let’s throw the book at him if he is convicted, but the media are whipping up a frenzy and that cannot be right when such a serious offence has occurred. This is not the Wild West with mob rule.

Mrs Angry said...

Well, let's see: being 'eccentric' and having blue hair is mildly amusing, and a statement of fact, if true: nothing wrong about reporting such. The fact that he was a teacher at a public school does make him more interesting that if he was say, a cab driver, and the press could hardly be expected to ignore this.

Speculation about,for example, being gay or not, may be a detail which should not be discussed in the press, but can be relevant, rather than a purely salacious detail, because any murder of a woman might have a sexual motive.

I am quite sure that any parent would not approve of any teacher losing their temper in class, whether paying a fee or not.

The story of the flat purchase from a teacher convicted of such an offence is a matter of public interest, and the public has a right to know about this: the question is of timing, however, and in all these examples the same question applies: when should such information be published? During this stage of the investigation or later?

I agree that the press is in danger of forgetting the basic principle of the presumption of innocence in many high profile criminal investigations. Can someone arrested in a very serious investigation of this nature who is later released without charge escape permanent damage to their reputation? Probably not in this country.

Discipline should be exercised by the press during such investigations, and there is an argument for a tightening up of procedures, but not all of the points raised in your list of objections would necessarily support a need for greater restrictions.

Don't Call Me Dave said...

Mrs Angry

That something is a statement of fact does not mean it should automatically be reported whilst a criminal investigation is still proceeding. If the Police had issued a notice saying “the suspect is believed to have blue hair” as part of an attempt to find someone, then fair enough. But this was entirely irrelevant in this instance. The media have included gossip and tittle-tattle into their reports. Expected from the tabloids, but not quality papers.

The public are in essence being told that having different colour hair makes you a weirdo and there must be something wrong with you if behave in a non-conformist manner.

As for his alleged conduct in the classroom (and DCMD cannot recall him ever losing his temper in the way described by some informants) unless a teacher assaults someone, raising your voice every now and again is no bad thing. Responsible parents cannot discipline their children without occasionally shouting and teachers, especially at boarding school, act in loco parentis. I have seen how disruptive it can be to students wishing to learn to have a class where a teacher is unable to exert his authority.

As for the flat itself, would the press have reported it if he had bought it from a sweet silver haired old lady? No, because it makes a much better story to say that he bought the flat from a paedophile. Guilt by association.

The public does have a right to know certain facts, but innocent defendants have rights too. Nicholas Stagg’s life was ruined by false allegations made against him. If Christopher Jefferies is charged and convicted, then he will suffer the consequences, but if he is not guilty of the crime, his life is going to be intolerable from now on. People assume that there is no smoke without fire and in the reporting of this particular case, the media have crossed the line between fair and responsible reporting and salacious gossiping.

Mrs Angry said...

It could be argued that the reverse is true: that the detailed interest in a suspect's life has in fact ultimately defended him from a potential miscarriage of justice. In other cases, again, it could be argued that the publicity and attention given to a serious investigation can bring vital evidence to the attention of the investigators which would not otherwise be uncovered.
As to the side issue of teachers losing their temper: there is a difference between raising your voice and losing your temper. A teacher who really does behave in this way, throwing stuff etc, is simply unable to control a class or his/her emotions and should look for another job.

Don't Call Me Dave said...

Correction. DCMD meant to refer to Colin Stagg, not Nicholas.

Moaneybat said...


I'm silent as I was then, within an hour or so of seeing your post. A 'Process' had begun with Mr Jefferies arrest!