Christopher Jefferies was vilified for a murder he didn't commit - now he's a privacy crusader

Jefferies was arrested in 2010 for the murder of Joanna Yeates, and saw his character traduced by the tabloid press. Powerful people now seek his opinions, he has an agent, and his story is to be made into a film

Christopher Jefferies doesn't look the way you might think. In 2010, when he was arrested for the murder of Joanna Yeates, and saw his character traduced by an insinuating barrage of libel in a tabloid press that was yet to see its ferocity curbed, there was an unspoken supposition that lay beneath it all: well, he looks the type.

Had a 40-year-old family man with neat hair and a suitable expression of concern been suspected of the crime, the speculation might have been somewhat restrained. But Mr Jefferies, a retired English teacher who lived alone, combined the prissiness of a polo neck with eccentrically unkempt white hair and a shabby old coat. Under the deranged scrutiny of the media, he had the misfortune to arrange his face in such a way that he appeared to be smirking. This, in the eyes of his tormentors, was enough.

A different man arrived in Cambridge to give a lecture to an audience of students at Anglia Ruskin University earlier this week. These days, Mr Jefferies does not smirk; he appears poised and self-assured, buoyed by the productive bubble of anger that survives even now. He wears winklepickers and a blazer and black shirt that fit him well, and his hair is short and dark. He appears to have lost a bit of weight. By the perverse calculus that deemed his previous appearance indicative of the capacity to kill, his look today would only hint at possible white-collar crime: insurance fraud, perhaps, or tax evasion.

"At times I've hardly been able to go anywhere without people stopping me and commenting," he says with a shrug when I sit down with him afterwards. "I need to be slightly careful how I seem in public, because the chances are someone will recognise me."

Indeed, more than four years after his surreal experience was taken up as one of those dismaying parables of our age, the world is still not finished with Chris Jefferies. Important people want his opinion on the tortuous aftermath of the Leveson Inquiry, and the question of a suspect's right to anonymity; in a few months, ITV will screen a two-part drama about his experience by Peter Morgan, peerless chronicler of the most remarkable lives of the era; and then there are lectures such as this one. He even has an agent. "It is not," he says drily, "the retirement I intended. In different ways, my time has been taken up with the things that followed from it ever since it happened."

The funny thing is: despite all the trauma of his experience, these days, Mr Jefferies rather seems to be enjoying himself. For one thing, he is steeped in his subject, with an intimidating range of reference and a crusader's conviction that the press's worst excesses must be reined in. For another, he is a bit of an orator, making me think, paradoxically enough, of a high court judge. I'm told that his lecture will be an hour, but in the event he speaks fluently, reading from dozens of handwritten A4 sheets, for nearly 90 minutes. He is entirely composed, but there are a few moments – as when he bites with particular force on a description of the tabloids' material as "private, scandalous, and defamatory" – when his sense of injustice and astonishment is electrifying.

Hounded: Jefferies in 2010, shortly after Joanna Yeates' murder (PA) Hounded: Jefferies in 2010, shortly after Joanna Yeates' murder (PA)
People remain shocked and fascinated by his experience, and the auditorium is packed. Taking questions at the end, Mr Jefferies ranges enthusiastically around the floor like the teacher he was. If his manner has a certain peevish formality, he nonetheless makes the students laugh. His only self-conscious gesture is the occasional flattening of the few flyaway hairs that remain.

After a resounding round of applause and the fervent thanks of the criminology department, Mr Jefferies weighs up his strange new life in a meeting room. That, I suggest, was quite fun. Perhaps the way his life has changed is a silver lining as well as a cross to bear.

"It certainly is interesting," he agrees. "But people occasionally say, well, are you glad it happened? And the answer to that is no, of course I'm not. I certainly wouldn't want to go through that again. But on the other hand, if some good does emerge from it all, then yes, I shall be extremely pleased."

His fluency – he speaks in paragraphs, albeit rather stiff ones – and commitment make me wonder if he has ever thought of a more formal sort of political engagement, perhaps as one of those idiosyncratic independent MPs who act as Westminster's occasional conscience. After all, he has concrete goals, already well-documented, that might more easily be brought about in office: the independent statutory regulation of the press; the introduction of a right to anonymity until the moment a suspect is charged. So how about it?

"I don't think so," he says. "The problem is that there would be so much that goes on in Parliament and constituency business that I would not really be interested in."

It's rather a shame, I remark: his anger is obviously still a source of energy. He smiles faintly. "Well, I'm not unhappy if that is what has come over."

Some of the wildly speculative press coverage after Christopher Jefferies was wrongly arrested for the murder of Joanna Yeates in 2010. He later successfully sued several newspapers for libel Some of the wildly speculative press coverage after Christopher Jefferies was wrongly arrested for the murder of Joanna Yeates in 2010. He later successfully sued several newspapers for libel
That self-propulsion is what has made him a sort of folk hero, really: the sense that people have of his having fought back against powerful forces that might have left many of us paralysed. "One or two people did say to me at the time that they thought that, if it had happened to them, they might have just crawled away and tried to forget it."

His peculiar good fortune, of course, was to be subjected to such obviously outrageous treatment that his vindication was as big a news story as his vilification had been. "There are many, many, many cases where that isn't the case," he says. "So the police have a responsibility as a public body to highlight somebody's exoneration where there's been adverse coverage and the person has been shown to be entirely innocent." This doesn't come naturally, even in a case as blatant as that of Mr Jefferies. Astonishingly, his bail wasn't lifted until six weeks after Vincent Tabak, the neighbour who subsequently confessed to killing Joanna Yeates, had been charged.

Mr Jefferies is quietly proud of his determination. He uses the Peter Morgan drama – he has read and approved the script, and talked to Mr Morgan at length – to make a point about what it took to fight back. "There are things in the film which happen in a way that very closely resembles reality," he says, "and then there are things which happened but in a different way, and there are things that didn't happen at all.

"But there's one particularly striking difference to me. In the film, I have to be persuaded by various people to take action. Whereas, in fact, my very first words to the solicitor when he was driving me away from the police station were: somebody has got to be sued for this. That was absolutely my determination from the start."

I wonder if he learned anything new about himself from it all. He reflects for a moment. "I suppose," he says matter-of-factly, "that I did discover a certain resilience."

Jefferies lecturing students this week (Mykel Nicolaou) Jefferies lecturing students this week (Mykel Nicolaou)
So what about now? Does he have any sense that anyone has learned anything from what happened to him? I'm sure the tendency of some parts of the press to rush in with premature – and possibly illegal – reporting on suspects has faded a bit. He agrees, but only up to a point. "One would be aghast if that wasn't the case," he says. He is not convinced that any such change is permanent, and he believes the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso), the body replacing the PCC, to be inadequate. Backsliding, he says, "is precisely what has happened in the past, and that is likely to happen in the future if all that is on offer is Ipso."

So there is much that he remains determined to fight for. But at some point – if not yet – the questions that animate him will be settled. What will he do then? It sounds like his agent may ultimately have a bit less to do. "What I want," he says, "is to do what I intended when I retired, which is why I started to read for a degree in French: I want to spend more of my time there."

Maybe this isn't terribly surprising. His experience has taught him some distaste for the British way of doing things. "There is something about the puritan element in Britain's past which is responsible for our sort of secret prurience. That's the role of the popular press, who reflect on the one hand a moral censoriousness, and on the other this salacious, sensational prying."

You can see why France might be appealing. There are many things to recommend it, of course, to the cultivated retiree, and I presume that they are at the root of his dream: food, culture, weather, landscape. But he mentions something else, too. "In France," he says with a smile, "they have some very strict laws on privacy."

When he finally gets there, perhaps he will let his hair grow again.

Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol
art'Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' followed hoax reports artist had been arrested and unveiled
Life and Style

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

Stephanie first after her public appearance as a woman at Rad Fest 2014

Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
peopleJust weeks after he created dress for Alamuddin-Clooney wedding
Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
Arts and Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio talks during the press conference for the film

Film follows park rangers in the Congo

Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
Adel Taraabt in action for QPR against West Ham earlier this month
footballQPR boss says midfielder is 'not fit to play football'
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

PPC Account Executive

£25 - 28k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: A PPC Account Executive is needed to...

Android Developer / Java Developer

£35 - 45k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a tech savvy Android Develo...

Sales Account Manager

£30 - 35k + 25% Y1 OTE + Fantastic Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an e...

Drupal Developer / Web Developer

£18 - 25k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Drupal Developer / Web Developer (Drupal / PH...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album