SHERBORNE Before I leave the topic of the damage which the press can do in terms of forcible trails let me give you two further examples. Examples which seem to fit the description Mr. Peppiatt gave when he said that tabloid newsrooms are often bullying and aggressive environments in which, he said, dissent is often not tolerated in particular when it comes to big stories.
One doesn’t need to explain that to Gerry and Kate McCann. The disappearance of their daughter on the 3rd of May, 2007 was on any view a big story and one which had the press almost falling over themselves to cover taking up almost permanent residence at the beginning in Praia da Luz. When he gives evidence, Mr. McCann will explain how it felt for him and his wife to be thrust from what one might call anonymity into the public limelight in the worst possible circumstances, one with which any parent would sympathise.
It may be appropriate for me at this moment to read out what clause 5 of The Press Complaints Commission’s code says entitled “Intrusion Into Grief”. Clause 5 states in terms which appear to have no public interest qualification that, “In cases involving personal grief or shock inquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively.”
Mr. McCann’s evidence will be a perfect example of how hopelessly inadequate this self regulatory code is as a means of curbing the excesses of the press. He will refer to the blatant intrusion which he and his family suffered throughout, particularly when they were back in the United Kingdom. From the press camping outside their door to how his children were terrified as they were driven around by their parents. He will explain how sensitively the media dealt with this, Moreover, he will explain how in the months following the abduction of Madeleine the behaviour of the press changed from an attitude of support to one of hostility. A change which he suspects and we say rightly was based on the commercial imperative to bring home exclusive stories for editors greedily waiting back in the United Kingdom watching the expenses bills of their journalists mounting up. Apparently journalists were being told, he will say, that they had to get a front page story or their job was on the line.
What happened in those days in late 2007 and into 2008 when stories about the missing toddler became thin on the ground and the pack of journalists were sitting idly in the bars of Praia da Luz must be some of the darkest days for this section of the press. Some of the headlines that were published, either based on some nonsense supposedly gleaned from the Portuguese police or often on nothing at all were a national scandal, and I list some of those headlines. “DNA puts parents in frame. British experts insist their tests are valid.” “Parents car hid a corpse. It was under carpet in boot say police.” “It was her blood in parents’ hire car, new DNA tests report.” “Kate and Gerry’s sabotage plot.” “Maddie’s grave. McCanns buried her on beach.” “Waiter can prove parents lied says Maddie police. What Kate called out.” And finally, “Maddie sold by hard-up McCanns.”
And all this despite the fact that the couple had tried through the police to circulate letters to the editors begging them for restraint especially given the ongoing search for their little girl. But all to no avail. Of course one thing did eventually work you’ll be pleased to hear. I say “You’ll be pleased to hear”, sir. That depends on whether you are a believer in the Press Complaints Commission or self-regulation. It was a libel complaint that worked, worked at least in the sense that the campaign to vilify this poor couple with the sort of nonsense stories that I’ve read out stopped. A massive payout to use the tabloid phrase was made by the Express the worst but by no means the only offender. And this proved to the world that these accusations were untrue. But there are still some people out there who will no doubt believe that there is no smoke without fire perhaps. The ones who still ring the McCann’s house or try and send them messages. Money doesn’t cure all the ills however as the Dowlers can and will testify to. But here with a libel claim unlike a privacy claim it does prove to the world, at least to the ordinary reasonable person, that these outrageous lies are just that and at least Express Newspapers published a front page apology.
Now if this was a one-off, an isolated case of the press going too far it might be forgiveable. A lapse in judgement albeit that it was only the Express group. But it wasn’t. The McCanns experience is not an isolated or unique experience and it has nothing to do with too much sun and Sangria clouding the brain of a pack of journalists as my second example demonstrates.
He is someone called Christopher Jefferies. A year ago you would never have heard of him, nor would you ever have seen him not unless you were lucky enough, that is, to have been taught by him during the thirty four years he worked as an English teacher. Yes, for thirty four years he dedicated his life to teaching and to building up a reputation as an exemplary professional. It took the tabloid newspapers only a matter of moments to destroy that reputation in the last days of Janua…, of December of last year. Worst still, he was catapulted like the McCanns from anonymity into the public spotlight in the most terrifying way possible as the man responsible, they claimed, for the murder of Joanna Yeates, the Bristol girl who rented one of the flats and who disapp…, of which he was a landlord and who disappeared on the weekend of the seventeenth of December and whose body was discovered on Christmas Day, 2010.
We all now know that Mr. Jefferies was entirely innocent and the murderer, Vincent Tabak, has now been convicted. But it created a media feeding frenzy of almost unparalleled proportions. A frenzy which, Sir, as you know led to two newspapers being found guilty of contempt of court. On one view, as he sat in a police station answering questions Mr. Jefferies was thankfully unaware of the clamour to convict him which occurred in the press as they appointed themselves his judge, jury and executioner. Once again it is lucky that when he was released on bail he was cossetted by friends. Indeed he only fully understood the breadth of the articles which sought to vilify him some time later. Perhaps that is all one can deal with in a situation like that. Thankfully I don’t know. But one reason why Mr. Jefferies is an example to us all is that this could happen to any one of us celebrity or not.
LEVESON This again is an example of something that contravened the Contempt of Court Act. These proceedings were then acting against him.
SHERBORNE Sir, it does but as I will show you with some of the newspaper headlines, not all of them of course were convicted of contempt of court. Some of the headlines, we say, go far too far in any event whether they breach the Contempt of Court Act.
This, as I say, had nothing to do with hacking mobile telephones, nothing to do with bribing the police, nothing to do with blagging personal information or blackmailing girls into giving kiss and tell stories. Let me share some of the highlights of this appalling coverage. The Sun’s headline, “Verdict. Weird, posh, lewd, creepy loner with blue rinse hair.” The Daily Mail, “Was Jo’s body hidden next to her flat?” “Murder police quiz nutty professor.” “The teacher they call ‘Mr. Strange’.” And then the Mirror, “Jo suspect is peeping tom.” “Arrest landlord spied on flat couple.” “Friend in jail for paedophile crimes.” And so on and so forth.
All in all it represented a frenzied campaign to blacken his character and persuade the public that he was guilty. A frightening combination of smear, innuendo and complete fiction involving gratuitous dirt digging to the most shameless extent possible. He was monstered in almost every sense imagineable, wrongly accused of being a sexually perverted voyeur, attacked for having had a malign influence over his pupils, suggested he was involved in a previous murder and linked to a convicted paedophile who I think was the man who owned the flat before the man who owned this flat sold it to the man from whom Mr. Jefferies bought it. But you get the picture. Obviously he must have been guilty then of murdering Jo Yeates. All of it was nonsense and all of this, despite warnings from the Attorney General, warnings that were largely ignored. Of course they were. It was too tempting not to publish. It was a devastating destruction of all aspects of Mr. Jefferies life from the professional to the most deeply personal. For example, his relationship with his late mother, the properties he owned, his conduct as a landlord, his entire teaching career. Like clumsy thieves drunk on the frenzy of an intoxicatingly good story the press broke into his life and trashed everything, everything that was precious to him, in particular ransacking thirty four years of dedication to his profession in a desperate bid to find what they were looking for, a way of establishing he was guilty. It is perhaps no wonder Mr. Jefferies described it later in this way, “My identity had been violated, my privacy had been intruded upon, my whole life. I don’t think it would be too strong a word to say that it was a kind of rape that had taken place.”
Mr. Jefferies is no celebrity. He’s not a politician. A year ago today I don’t imagine that even in his worst nightmares Mr. Jefferies would have ever dreamt that this could have happened to him. No-one ever thinks it will happen to them. And the attitude of the press? One editor later described it, when interviewed on radio after the case, as “a mistake”. Really? Just a mistake? How reassuring. I suppose the hacking into Milly Dowler’s phone was just an error. But what does that say about the ethics of the press or at least a certain section of it? Is this the kind of behaviour, I ask, which is the reason why we have this inquiry or do people still believe, as some newspaper groups maintain, that there is no problem and that we are only here because of political revenge reaked by the Members of Parliament who’ve been caught out fiddling their expenses?
Yes Mr. Jefferies brought libel proceedings and yes he was paid a significant sum. But does that really make up for what happened to him? Does anyone here really think that having to dip into their profits will make these newspapers think twice?
Its an interesting feature of this story and one I will leave you with, Sir, that some of the journalists who monstered Mr. Jefferies were the very same journalists responsible for the stories about the McCanns. I’d love to name names but I’ve promised not to. And tempting though it is to employ the same jigsaw identification tactics which the press use to undermine the orders courts grant to protect individuals from unlawful publications, I am no John Hemmings. Perhaps its fitting though to let Jo Yeate’s partner have the last word. In a public statement back in January of this year, long before Mr. Tabak was arrested, he described the finger pointing and character assassination by the news media of an as yet innocent man, Mr. Jefferies, as “shameful”. “It has made me lose a lot of faith,” he said, “in the morality of the British press.” I don’t suppose Mr. Jefferies has a lot of faith in their morality either. And neither might you. Sir.
And before we leave this type of journalism, I should briefly return to the McCanns because they were to suffer one final swipe. Without any warning in September, 2008, the News of the World published Kate’s private diary that she had written to her missing daughter, Madeleine. It was a diary in which she recorded her innermost thoughts, things she had written to her daughter. A document so private that even her own husband had not seen it but which was taken by the police in the course of the investigation. How did the News of the World get this from the police? Did they buy the information, obtain it through some form of deception? We may never know now especially as the newspaper is defunct. And on what basis did they think they could justify such a staggering intrusion into the McCann’s privacy. The publication of this material under the headline, “Kate’s diary in her own words” with a picture on the front page suggesting she had provided this herself left her feeling “mentally raped”, her husband says. And is it any wonder? As if the McCanns didn’t have enough to deal with.
Does this suggest something is fundamentally wrong with the culture, the ethics and practices of the press? Well all three. Sometimes it is hard to differentiate between them. Upon any counts I would say this was wrong, wrong and wrong.
Thanks to the person who spent the time transcribing this statement….. greatly appreciated