The week in radio: Christopher Jefferies' trial by media hid a picture of innocence


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The Independent Culture

What's in a photograph? In the case of a snapshot of Christopher Jefferies, a 65-year-old retired teacher from Bristol, a portrait of a murderer.

On a bright December morning in 2010, a press photographer took a picture of Jefferies leaving his flat shortly before his arrest on suspicion of killing his tenant, the landscape architect Joanna Yeates. His hair was wild, the brow creased and the eyes irritable and bewildered. It's clear now that there was nothing unusual in this. He appeared how many of us would look if accosted by a snapper at the crack of dawn and quizzed about a murder we knew little about.

Over the next three days, while Jefferies was in police custody, a second photograph emerged, this one taken 30 years previously. It showed Jefferies in a school line-up sporting blue-rinsed hair, his mouth in a half-smile. It was not, safe to say, a flattering shot but then few photographs taken in such circumstances are.

Only in this case, the picture was reproduced online and across the press, alongside lurid reports of Jefferies' ferocious temper, his lewd language and unpleasant odour. Jefferies was styled as the archetypal villain. And we all drank it in.

The extraordinary monstering of Christopher Jefferies – who was released from police custody without charge – was the subject of the first in a new series of Radio 4's A Life Less Ordinary, about members of the public who unexpectedly find themselves in the limelight. Previous episodes have examined the experiences of Sandra Gregory, who was convicted for attempting to smuggle heroin out of Thailand, and the Reverend John Mosey, whose daughter was killed in the Lockerbie disaster.

In this episode, Jefferies had granted an interview to two journalists, David Aaronovitch and Roy Greenslade, which, all things considered, was pretty bloody stoic of him. The public, he said, "need to be reminded of the kind of human damage which newspapers are capable of".

Going over some of the headlines, which included "The Strange Mr Jefferies", "Obsessed by Death" and "A Creep Who Freaked Out Schoolgirls", Jefferies remarked drily: "If it weren't so potentially damaging it would be faintly comic."

He talked of the "jarring disconnect" between his perception of himself and that of the rest of the country in the weeks after his arrest, and said he could see how people that had gone through similar ordeals had considered suicide.

This was as sad and shocking and shaming a piece of radio as anything I've heard in recent years. It showed Jefferies to be a man of restraint, wisdom and fortitude (he subsequently gave evidence at the Leveson Inquiry and successfully sued eight newspapers for libel).

And while it didn't exactly cast the media in a glowing light, it also showed the rest of us – essentially anyone with an internet connection or access to a newspaper – as judgmental morons incapable of empathy.

I say this because I too remember seeing that first picture of Jefferies, then accused of murder, on the news and thinking, "Well he looks the part. I've seen baddies on Scooby-Doo more benign-looking than him."

And that, at the time, was as much thought as I gave the matter. I didn't consider the possibility of his innocence, nor the ordeal that he and his family were going through.

It's this kind of careless attitude that Jefferies was up against four years ago and which turned his life upside down. Having survived to tell the tale, it's also why his voice is now extraordinarily powerful and one to which we should all be listening.