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.

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Sport
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
News
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Sport
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Sport
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
News
i100
News
i100
Sport
Plenty to ponder: Amir Khan has had repeated problems with US immigration because of his Muslim faith and now American television may shun him
boxing
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Head of Marketing - London

£60000 - £85000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Interim Head of Marketing / Marketin...

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Digital Project Manager

£25 - 30k: Guru Careers: A Digital Project Manager is needed to join an exciti...

Paid Search Analyst / PPC Analyst

£24 - 28k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Paid Search Analyst / PPC...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments