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.