Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Trial by Tabloid

If you follow the British press at all, you'll be aware of the ongoing investigation into the tragic murder of Joanna Yeates, a landscape architect living in Bristol.   Yeates' body was found on Christmas day, over a week after her mysterious disappearance.  While many murders in Britain get minimal exposure from the national press, the timing & circumstances of this one, and the demographic of a young, attractive, middle class victim, has turned it into a huge story. The primary suspect at this point seems to be her landlord, Chris Jefferies, a retired English teacher.  Last week Jefferies was arrested by the police on suspicion of murder, and released on bail a couple of days later.  He is now in hiding. While it's quite possible that Jefferies is guilty, any possibility of an impartial trial is being severely compromised by a torrent of sensationalist, speculative reporting, with lurid and frankly absurd references to his "wild hair", his interest in avant-garde films, and a taste for "morbid" poetry (penned by those moral reprobates Christina Rossetti and Oscar Wilde).  Of course the clear mark of his guilt, we are led to believe, is his status as "a bit of a loner".  If you Google this case, you will find a slew of wild allegations about Jefferies appearing by the hour, with even the so-called quality papers getting in on the act.  There are a few dissenting voices though. Brian Cathcart, writing in Index on Censorship, and  Robert Chesshyre, in First Post, discuss the weaknesses of & disregard for Britain's Contempt of Court laws, as they affect this case and others.  Craig Brown, in the Mail (surprisingly?) defends that stock character, the eccentric teacher, and finds eccentricity to be far more pedagogically effective than plodding, everyday cramming.