The ordeal of Christopher Jefferies
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Slight and spry, he turns up to be interviewed wearing a striped Abercrombie & Fitch shirt, black trousers and youthful, winkle-pickerish boots. Christopher Jefferies wears his hair shorter now than in those days around New Year when he attracted national attention, and it is tinted brown. He doesn’t look 65.
The voice is a real schoolteacher’s voice, though it might equally belong to a High Court judge. More ringing than booming, it would carry not only to the back of a classroom or a court, but to the back of a large hall. He speaks slowly and clearly, also like a judge, but without pedantry – his sentences, when written down, don’t always parse. The accent is 1970s BBC, although there is something grander than that about the way he says “becawse”.
For a man whose treatment by much of the national press was described as “vilification” by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge; as “monstering” by his solicitors and as “character assassination” by another significant observer, Jefferies proves remarkably dispassionate about his story. Sometimes as he talks, and even occasionally jokes, you might think these were the experiences of someone he hardly knew. But in his way he manages to communicate perfectly clearly the dreadfulness of what happened to him.
Jefferies, a retired English teacher aged 65, was the landlord and neighbour of Joanna Yeates, the Bristol landscape architect aged 25 who disappeared on December 17 last year and whose body was discovered on Christmas Day. She was lying in the snow at the edge of a quarry three miles from her home, and she had been strangled.
On December 30, a little after 7am, Jefferies heard a knock at the door of his flat and a voice saying: “It’s the police, Mr Jefferies. We need your help.” He let them in, and was immediately arrested on suspicion of murder.
He was questioned for three days and then released on police bail, an indication that he remained under suspicion. Three weeks later a Dutchman, Vincent Tabak, was arrested and charged with the murder, but it was not until March 4 that Jefferies’ bail was lifted and police confirmed he was not a suspect. Tabak later admitted killing Yeates but denied murder, and he is currently on trial.
Christopher Jefferies, therefore, is clearly innocent of murder. Since he is currently suing Avon and Somerset police for false imprisonment, breach of his human rights and trespass, the grounds for his arrest can’t be discussed here. But the press reporting about him can.
The eight worst-offending newspapers have, as we shall see, admitted in court that all of the serious allegations against him that they printed were untrue, but what happened to Jefferies was so remarkable and so shocking that, in his view, it should not just be forgotten. For that reason, unusually, he is prepared to discuss his own “monstering” in some detail.
The early-morning arrest that December day was, he says, “a bolt from the blue”. When he heard the knock and checked the time, his first thought was that it was a neighbour who had been unwell and was having some kind of emergency. “I had no suspicion whatsoever that I might even be considered a suspect, since as far as I was concerned there wasn’t a shred of evidence to that effect.”
He might have been less surprised if, like most of the rest of us, he had an understanding of criminal investigations that was coloured by television drama – he had been the subject of some media attention the previous day. But Jefferies doesn’t own a television, preferring radio. Nor does he routinely read a newspaper. “I buy a paper if there’s something I particularly want to read.”
One of the quirks of his case is that the press reporting about him was published almost entirely during the three days he was in police custody, when he was not shown a single newspaper and when his solicitor, Bambos Tsiattalou, spared him any account of what the world was reading.
“I remained oblivious of the extraordinary media interest even the day after I was released,” Jefferies recalls. He could not return to his flat so he stayed with friends who also hesitated to discuss the press coverage. It was only when he “blithely proposed”, as he puts it, to head off into Bristol to buy some clothes and washing things that matters came to a head. This prospect “so alarmed the solicitor that he rang to say that if my friends couldn’t persuade me not to do that, he would himself come down from London in order to persuade me that this was a very bad idea”.
Only then did Christopher Jefferies begin to grasp what had happened.
Several of the newspapers on the Thursday morning, their stories written before his arrest but reaching their readers after it, painted him in an unmistakably sinister light. The Daily Mail, for example, had a front-page photo beside the headline: “Could this man hold the key to Joanna’s murder?” Since, as her landlord, Jefferies naturally had a set of keys to the basement flat she shared with her boyfriend, Greg Reardon, the hint was a heavy one.
It was not until the Friday that the press let rip.
The front page of The Sun showed a small photograph of Joanna Yeates next to a cut-out from a school line-up showing Jefferies 30 years ago, with very blue hair, grinning. The headline was: “The strange Mr Jefferies – Kids’ nickname for ex-teacher suspect”.
Page four took things much further. It was dominated by four words, each accompanied by an explanatory phrase, thus: “WEIRD ‘Strange talk, strange walk’; POSH ‘Loved culture, poetry’; LEWD ‘Made sexual remarks’; CREEPY ‘Loner with blue rinse hair’”. The report began: “Joanna Yeates murder suspect Chris Jefferies was last night branded a creepy oddball by ex-pupils, a teaching colleague and neighbours.” It went on to assert that he had a ferocious temper and threw things in the classroom, and that he invited pupils to his home and habitually made sexual remarks. He was also unkempt and dirty, a loner, domineering and generally believed to be a homosexual.
The evidence for this came largely from unnamed sources, although a former teaching colleague, Richard Bland, was quoted using the word “loner” and referring to the blue-tinged hair. Bland also said that Christopher Jefferies was a dedicated and successful teacher, though this was not given prominence.
The Daily Mirror had its own line: “Jo suspect is Peeping Tom”. Beside that were three more lines: “Arrest landlord spied on flat couple”; “Friend in jail for paedophile crimes” and “Cops now probe 36-year-old murder”. On inside pages Jefferies was a Nutty Professor with a bizarre past who was arrogant, rude and a snob, had a ferocious temper and peered through his tenants’ windows. The paper also reported that “his eccentric manner and long-term bachelor status sparked unfounded school gossip that he was gay”.
The other papers had their own variations. The Mail (“The teacher they called Mr Strange”) reported that Jefferies idolised Christina Rossetti, who was described as a mentally ill Romantic poet who “often wrote about death” and “was prone to apocalyptic visions”.
The Daily Star announced: “Jo landlord a creep who freaked out schoolgirls” and “Angry ‘weirdo’ had foul temper”. And the Daily Express quoted an unnamed former pupil saying he constantly made lewd remarks to students.
All allowed generous space for photographs, many serving to reveal the contrast between the youthful, pretty murder victim and the wide-eyed and windswept suspect. The Mirror blew up one picture to show that Jefferies had an A-Z of Bristol in his car, adding the caption: “Evidence … maps were on the back seat”.
It would have been very difficult, seeing this coverage, to avoid the conclusion or at least the strong suspicion that Christopher Jefferies had killed Joanna Yeates. He was, or so it was suggested, volatile, morbid, sexually repressed and unfettered by social norms. Furthermore, he knew his tenants’ movements and had access to Joanna Yeates’s flat.
This hostile evidence was founded almost entirely on unnamed witnesses, with some of the most contentious quotations reproduced in several papers. A careful reader who relied only on quotes from people who were identified by name would probably have seen a very different picture.
A former tenant, Wendy Nicholls; a friend, Oliver Cullen; his former headmaster at Clifton College, Stuart Andrews; a neighbour, Ray Lowman; even the former teacher who spoke of Jefferies as a loner, Richard Bland – they described in various papers, though usually towards the end of articles, a man who was a dedicated teacher, a responsible landlord and an active member of his community. Several expressed amazement at his arrest or downright disbelief at the idea of him killing anyone.
Put these together with some readily available facts and it would have been possible to flip the picture entirely. This man had taught for 34 years in a well-known local independent school, Clifton College, leaving without a blemish on his record. He was involved in Neighbourhood Watch, the Liberal Democrat party and a number of conservation campaigns. He had a large circle of friends, owned a handful of properties and was studying for a degree in French at the University of the West of England. As Lowman put it, he was a pillar of society.
But editors did not give prominence to that interpretation.
After seeing the papers that Friday, the solicitor, Bambos Tsiattalou, wrote to several editors warning them in strong terms to stop publishing defamatory material. And on the same day the Attorney-General, Dominic Grieve, publicly reminded editors that the Contempt of Court Act forbids the publication of material relating to an arrested person that was likely to prejudice a future jury against them.
Yet the next day’s coverage was again extremely hostile to Christopher Jefferies.
Saturday’s Sun, for example, led the front page with the headlines: “Obsessed by death” and “Jo suspect ‘scared kids’”. The substance of this “revelation” was that he had shown some students the 1955 Alain Resnais Holocaust documentary Night and Fog and that he had taught students the “Victorian murder novel” The Moonstone.
Inside was an interview with an unnamed blonde woman who alleged that Jefferies had approached her several times in Bristol and that when she rebuffed him he responded with a question used as the headline: “What do you think I am, a pervert?” In a short article alongside, two named former tenants of Jefferies were quoted as saying that he had let himself into their flat, though they did not suggest there was anything sinister about this.
The Mirror, meanwhile, asked: “Was killer waiting in Jo’s flat?” and kept its focus on landlord and key-holder Jefferies, who was, again, a nutty professor, a show-off, dirty and eccentric. The Mail had a tale about him leaving his dying mother’s bedside while the Daily Star recycled the Rossetti angle and declared that Jefferies had been known to pupils as “Wizard”.
That Saturday evening, however, after three days and two nights in custody, Jefferies was released, and at about the same time Joanna Yeates’s partner, Greg Reardon, issued a statement. A personal tribute to the murdered woman, it also included the following forthright passage:
“Jo’s life was cut short tragically but the finger-pointing and character assassination by social and news media of as yet innocent men has been shameful. It has made me lose a lot of faith in the morality of the British press and those that spend their time fixed to the internet in this modern age.
“I hope in the future they will show a more sensitive and impartial view to those involved in such heartbreaking events and especially in the lead-up to potentially high-profile court cases.”
The Sunday Mirror rendered this for its readers as: “And he attacked internet ghouls who have posted hurtful and lurid speculation about the death of Joanna… He said he had lost faith in ‘those that spend their time fixed to the internet in this modern age’, adding ‘I hope in the future they will show a more sensitive and impartial view… ’” The Mail on Sunday and the Sunday Express reported the statement but left out the comments about character assassination by the press altogether.
With these events the steam went out of the Jefferies story, although there was still just enough left to justify the Sunday Mirror pointing out that he had taught pupils Oscar Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”, which it described as “the story of a man hanged for cutting his wife’s throat”, while the Mail on Sunday noted that he had shown them the Deborah Kerr film The Innocents, a spooky tale by 1961 standards, though today rated suitable for 12-year-olds. By Monday there was little interest in the retired teacher.
Christopher Jefferies, remarkably, has never read most of the reporting from that New Year weekend, and has seen hardly any of it in its original, dramatic published form.
“I made the conscious decision – because many people said look, you don’t want to look at these – I made the conscious decision not to scour the press but simply to leave all that to the lawyers, and I would look in detail at anything they wanted me to look at and I would answer their questions about what had been stated in the press.”
But if he did not have to live through it, the same was not true of his friends and family. In many ways, he says, it was worse for them.
“I knew exactly what was happening at the police station; they didn’t. I was entirely unaware of media speculation; they were very much aware of media speculation.”
He had spent Christmas with relatives in Derbyshire and had planned to visit an aunt in Cheshire for New Year. “She was obviously one of the first people that I telephoned after I was released and she was … extremely relieved to hear me. She said she felt as if the experience of those three days had aged her a hundred years. Those were the words that she used.”
When he talks about the long-term effects he has felt himself, he does not distinguish between the arrest and the press coverage. Instead, he links them: “The whole process of being arrested and taken into custody is really designed – as far as its effect on me is concerned – to strip you of your own identity, because your clothes are taken away, your possessions are taken away, you are given other clothes, you are held incommunicado to a very large degree.
“And then all these extraordinary falsehoods are woven around this now almost personality-less identity. So it’s very unsettling. You know who you are and yet you have none of the trappings of that person, and here is this quite foreign, alternative personality which people are trying to foist upon you.”
The result, Jefferies says, still in his clear, even tone, is a sense of violation.
“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.”
To be clear, when he talks of rape he is not speaking about the coverage alone, but about the entire experience, including his time on police bail. But the “extraordinary falsehoods”, the foisting on him of that alternative personality – the personality of someone who is weird, lewd and creepy – those parts of it are the work of the press.
Jefferies does not rant and rail; on the evidence of this interview he does not readily express emotions. But he agrees that he feels angry.
That anger ultimately led him to sue eight newspapers: The Sun, the Daily Mirror, the Sunday Mirror, the Daily Record, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, the Daily Star and The Scotsman. On July 29 this year, lawyers representing the owners of all of those papers appeared at the High Court in London, where Christopher Jefferies’ solicitor, this time the media specialist Louis Charalambous, acted as master of ceremonies.
It was a remarkable occasion (though not an unprecedented one, since something similar happened in the case of the much-libelled Robert Murat, briefly a suspect in the Madeleine McCann case). It began with Charalambous explaining the background of the death of Joanna Yeates, the arrest of his client and his release, and the reporting over the New Year weekend. Then he told the court:
“Many of the articles published by the defendants suggested that there were strong grounds to suspect that Mr Jefferies had killed Joanna Yeates and several of them went on to allege that he had acted in an inappropriate, over-sexualised manner with his pupils in the past and that he invaded the privacy of his tenants in his capacity as a landlord of two flats in the building where he lives.
“Some of the articles suggested to readers that he was an associate of a convicted paedophile and that there were grounds to investigate whether he was responsible for an unsolved murder dating back to 1974.
“The defendants are here by their solicitor today to acknowledge that the allegations which were published about Mr Jefferies are entirely untrue.
“In particular, the defendants accept that Mr Jefferies had nothing to do with Joanna Yeates’s death, that he helped the police as much as he could following her death, and that there is no basis for suggesting he had ever acted inappropriately with any pupil during his long and distinguished career as a teacher.
“The defendants all wish to apologise to Mr Jefferies for the seriously defamatory articles which their newspapers published.”
(This ritual was gone through three times in court, because the Daily Express and the Daily Star on one hand and The Scotsman on the other had not published all the libels identified above, and so did not apologise for all of them.)
All of the papers paid damages. Neither Jefferies nor Charalambous has disclosed the total sum, though one legal source put it in the region of £500,000 ($772,000). If that were evenly divided between eight papers, it would be £62,500 each.
The legal ramifications did not end there, for on the same day the Lord Chief Justice and two other judges gave judgment in a rare prosecution for breach of the Contempt of Court Act brought by the Attorney-General against the Daily Mirror and The Sun. Both newspapers were found guilty, on the grounds that their reporting about Jefferies was so damaging to his character and went so far towards suggesting his guilt of the murder of Joanna Yeates that it would have undermined his chances of mounting a proper defence had his case come to court.
The judges explained: “Reluctant witnesses would have been even more reluctant to come forward, and witnesses who might have been prepared to come forward may very well have assumed that anything helpful or supportive they might have said about Mr Jefferies could not be right.” The Mirror was fined £50,000, The Sun £18,000.
As all of the graver allegations against him have been acknowledged in court by the newspapers to be untrue, Jefferies has no further need to comment on them, but in keeping with his detached approach to the rest of his story he proves open to discussing them, at least in general terms.
On the suggestion that he was an intrusive landlord he professes bafflement. “The only comments that have ever been made directly to me by former tenants have been to say how much they have enjoyed living in the flats… Indeed one or two tenants have offered to buy the flats because they have liked living there so much.”
As for showing disturbing films to pupils, he ran the school film society for years and could not count the number of screenings, of all kinds. Night and Fog and The Innocents are both good and important works of cinema. He has never taught either Rossetti or “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”, but he has taught The Moonstone, which is not really a murder story and is hardly controversial.
The hair? He confesses, a little guardedly, to having in the past used a shampoo which gave his hair a slight bluish tint, though he strongly denies that it was ever as blue as it appeared in some photographs published in the press.
Other suggestions about him he puts down to fabrications and mistakes. “People could have said things to journalists thinking they were talking about me but in fact were talking about somebody else who they confused with me.”
To an oblique question referring to the speculation about his sexuality he offers a brisk and emphatic response: “All I can say is that there was and there is absolutely no evidence for anybody to speculate in any direction on my sexuality.” Of the many references to him as a “bachelor” he remarks: “This is one of those examples of journalistic lazy thinking and the way in which people are encouraged to think in clichés.”
We may not have heard the last of Christopher Jefferies. He has been approached for comments on his experiences by the inquiry under Lord Justice Leveson which is examining the state of the press after the phone-hacking scandal, and he may yet be called as a witness.
He gives an indication of what he might say, and it is not surprising. He is no fan of the Press Complaints Commission, which he condemns as “woefully inadequate”, and he is not convinced that the press itself has learned much from what happened over New Year in Bristol.
He says he heard one editor, interviewed on radio after the libel case, refer to a “mistake”. “Yes,” he says, “it was a mistake. But that word seemed to me to be so inadequate to sum up the enormity of what happened – the crassness, the irresponsibility, the lack of judgment. Really if all that could be said was, ‘Oh yes we made a mistake,’ certainly standards need to be rather different.”
Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University and a founder of the Hacked Off campaign. His book ‘The case of Stephen Lawrence’ won The Orwell Prize in 2000.
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