Strange. Lewd. Creepy. Peeping Tom. Obsessed by death. These are just some of the words used by the populist press to describe Chris Jefferies. Mr Jefferies was arrested late last year in connection with the murder of his tenant, Joanna Yeates, but released without charge. A different individual has now been charged with Ms Yeates's murder.
Elements of the press have been sailing close to the wind for several years. But with their character assassination of Mr Jefferies they have tipped over into the ocean of irresponsibility. And now the backlash is coming.
Anna Soubry, the Conservative MP for Broxtowe, will this week bring forward a private member's Bill in Parliament which would make it illegal for a newspaper or broadcaster to name someone arrested or questioned by police until they are charged with a crime. Ms Soubry claims she has received encouragement from the Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, and the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve.
This is rather odd because ministers already have the power to curb prejudiced reporting. The 1981 Contempt of Court Act makes it an offence to publish information "tending to interfere with the course of justice in particular legal proceedings". The prejudice displayed against Mr Jefferies in the tabloid press would certainly fall into that category. What has been lacking has been any appetite from ministers to use the powers at their discretion. It is puzzling why Mr Clarke and Mr Grieve prefer to have a backbencher do their job for them.
In any case, the vested interests are beginning to stir. Bob Satchwell, of the Society of Editors, has suggested that "naming an arrested person means that other information comes out that is in the interest of the arrested". Exactly how being labelled "creepy" is in the interests of someone like Mr Jefferies is a mystery. Mr Satchwell also asserts that "there is a danger of not reporting about a crime that people are entitled to know about". But what interests the public is not necessarily the same as the public interest.
Some have warned that restrictions could have the unintended consequence of making it more difficult for the public to hold the police to account. It is argued that Ms Soubry's law would make it impossible to report who the police have taken into custody and that naming suspects in the media constitutes a form of protection for those arrested. It is further claimed that naming suspects can have the effect of encouraging witnesses to come forward, thus helping a case to proceed.
Such defences might have been respectable if newspapers had behaved with more restraint in recent years but, in the present context of a populist press that smears reputations before the facts are known, it sounds like hollow special pleading.
A practical objection to tighter reporting restrictions is the internet. While websites are technically liable for contempt, in reality cyberspace is impossible to police. Does it make sense for print to be heavily policed, when the public can increasingly get information online? As Ofcom's latest report into News Corporation's bid to expand its ownership of BSkyB makes clear, online news tends to extend the reach of established providers, rather than new players. It is true that tighter laws on print would not be a silver bullet to take out character assassinations, but they would represent progress nonetheless.
The time has come to tighten the screw on prejudicial reporting in newspapers – whether by applying the existing law more assiduously or introducing a new offence. Anyone who feels that the status quo is acceptable should take a closer look at the scandalous treatment of the unfortunate Mr Jefferies.Reuse content