‘Shameful’ coverage risks more than contempt

Bristol was at the centre of a narrative that gripped the country over Christmas, following the disappearance, discovery and investigation into the murder of Joanna Yeates.

Inevitably, some coverage resulting from the arrest of suspect Christopher Jefferies raised concerns that the media could undermine the investigation. This will be all too familiar to those with an understanding of how crime is reported in this country.

It did not take long after his arrest for irrelevant headlines about Jefferies to appear, ranging from the claim that he bought his flat from a paedophile to an alleged interest in poems about killing people (I am not providing links to this coverage). Throw in some comments about his blue rinse hair and ‘loner’ characteristics and you have a picture of an eccentric. But the coverage also depicts a media too keen to judge a man who (as of today) has not been charged with any crime.

This has resulted in the Attorney General warning the media of the risk of prejudicing any future trial and Jo Yeates’ boyfriend condemning the ‘shameful’ coverage in a statement issued on Saturday.

Given that Contempt of Court legislation applies to publication which carries a ‘substantial risk of serious prejudice’, and no charges have yet been brought against anyone, the media can be said to be on the right side of the law. Of course, they know how far to push it and this sort of thing is hardly new. Whether they are acting fairly is another matter.

I hope they heed the comments of last few days. Some coverage has been silly; recent reports of Jefferies wanting to clear his name, in the same papers which have done so much to tarnish it, have bordered on the ridiculous. But some of it has also been shameful, as those who are close to events suggest. It may still come back to bite as things develop.