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Convicted by the Tabloid Press
On Christmas Day 2010, the body of Joanna Yeates (right) was discovered near a golf course in the Somerset, England village of Failand; she had been missing from her flat in Bristol for a week.
The autopsy revealed the 25-year-old woman had been strangled.
Police in the area launched one of the largest ever murder enquiries with 80 detectives assigned to the case. This, in its turn, attracted the attention of national media.
Christopher Jefferies was the landlord who owned the flat in which Ms. Yeates lived with her boyfriend, Greg Reardon.
He was a retired English teacher who lived in the same building. He was a mildly eccentric bachelor who spoke in a somewhat halting manner. He sported an extravagant, grey comb over and was inclined to correct people on their grammar. He was, in short, a little different.
And, it seems, his strangeness was the paramount reason why police arrested him on December 30, 2010.
After two days of interrogation Christopher Jefferies faced no charges. A simple police announcement said “A 65-year-old man who was arrested on suspicion of murder has been released on police bail.” The conditions of his release indicated he was still a suspect.
The British tabloids were all over the story and, when the truth didn’t match the narrative they had constructed, they invented material. Christopher Jefferies sported that frothy bouffant of grey hair and wore a shabby, old coat. Well, he looked the part didn’t he? The man ran headlong into the grubby world of exploitative journalism where the goal is to titillate the readers with salacious goings-on so as to sell newspapers. There is only a passing effort to stick to the facts if they are not spicy enough to boost circulation.
As Ginny Dougary wrote in The Radio Times the front pages had “photographs of a wild-haired man and screaming headlines, WEIRD, POSH, LEWD.”
The Mirror had a gigantic banner proclaiming “JO SUSPECT IS PEEPING TOM,” this was accompanied by teasers “Arrest Landlord Spied on Flat Couple,” “Friend in Jail for Paedophile Crimes,” and “Cops now Probe 36-year-old Murder.”
As Chris Jefferies later pointed out “All of this was completely false.” Proven so by the arrest and charging of Dutch engineer Vincent Tabak in the murder of Joanna Yeates. Tabak admitted to manslaughter but the court thought otherwise and convicted him of first degree murder. He was a neighbour of Ms. Yeates and said the crime was a sexual thrill kill. Police found child pornography on Tabak’s laptop, along with violent sexual videos.
He is currently serving a life sentence with no hope of parole for 20 years.
Despite having charged Tabak, police did not remove the bail conditions imposed on Jefferies for three months forcing him to continue to live under a cloud of suspicion. It took nearly three years for police to publicly acknowledge it made a mistake in its handling of the case, but it stopped short of using the word “apology.”
A Silver Lining
In 2011 and 2012 an inquiry into the behaviour of the British media was held under Lord Justice Leveson. Christopher Jefferies’s ordeal was one of the many stories of lives ruined by unethical reporting.
Jefferies told the inquiry “… the national media shamelessly vilified me. The U.K. press set about what can only be described as a witch-hunt. It was clear that the tabloid press had decided that I was guilty of Ms. Yeates’s murder and seemed determined to persuade the public of my guilt … “the tabloid press essentially portrayed me as a sexually perverted voyeur who used teaching as a means of feeding my perversions and that I had a malign influence over any pupils I came into contact with …”
Archie Bland (The Independent, March 2014) has written “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.”
And, Christopher Jefferies points out that “There are many, many, many cases where that isn’t the case. 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.”
The Mirror and The Sun were later found to be in contempt of court over their mistreatment of Jefferies and fined £50,000 and £18,000 respectively. They and six other newspapers apologized to their victim and settled on a large, but undisclosed, amount in damages.
Christopher Jefferies has spent the time since his ordeal working for others who have been harmed by the media. He is in constant demand for interviews and speeches on the issues of abuse of power by the press and police.
He works with the advocacy group Hacked Off, which campaigns on behalf of those whose characters have been besmirched by the media.
People such as “Robert Murat, to this day receiving death threats with regard to the abduction of Madeleine McCann, a crime of which he is entirely innocent. Or, more recently, Rebecca Leighton, effectively found guilty in certain papers of mass murder before being judged by the police to be entirely innocent. The common factor in all these cases? Money. The stirring up of public outrage, at the expense of the individuals’ rights, while potentially jeopardising real justice, simply [to sell] newspapers.”
Four years after his torment he told Archie Bland of The Independent that “It is not the retirement I intended. In different ways, my time has been taken up with the things that followed from it ever since it happened.” Bland adds “The funny thing is: despite all the trauma of his experience, these days, Mr. Jefferies rather seems to be enjoying himself.”
Now with his wild hair tamed and dyed, Christopher Jefferies talks about his time of notoriety.
The made-for-television drama The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was aired on British TV in December 2014. It is a fairly accurate portrayal of what happened to Mr. Jefferies and its director, Roger Michell, was once a student of Mr. Jefferies at Clifton College. The film is available on several platforms.
“Landlord Chris Jefferies Bailed over Jo Yeates Murder.” BBC News, January 2, 2011.
“Meet Christopher Jefferies: the Man behind the Tabloid Spin.” Ginny Dougary, The Radio Times, August 22, 2015.
“Christopher Jefferies Was Vilified for a Murder he Didn’t Commit - now he’s a Privacy Crusader.” Archie Bland, The Independent, March 26, 2014.
“Joanna Yeates’s Landlord Chris Jefferies Wins Libel Payout.” The Telegraph, July 29, 2011.