The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies

21st August 2020 Media Law

There is never a shortage of courtroom dramas or crime thrillers on the television but rarely is a media law case played out on prime time ITV (other than the news). As a passionate media and reputation management lawyer, Alan Partridge fan and someone who watched much of the Leveson Inquiry you can see why I watched BAFTA-winning ‘The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies’ which was repeated this week on ITV. I did watch it the first time around in 2014 too. 

The drama depicts the real life events leading to a successful defamation case brought by Mr Jefferies against 8 newspapers concerning 40 newspaper articles. There is footage of Mr Jefferies giving evidence at the Leveson Inquiry and Steve Coogan (AKA Alan Partridge) is featured in a scene prior to Mr Jefferies giving evidence to Rt Hon Lord Justice Leveson as part of the inquiry into press ethics.

At the heart of the drama is the shocking murder of Joanna Yeates. For those not familiar with the case, Mr Jefferies was a former teacher who had a distinguished career between 1967 and 2001 at Clifton College. Mr Jefferies also owned a number of flats in the building that he lived in. Ms Yeates was a tenant in one of Mr Jefferies’ flats. Following the discovery of Ms Yeates’ body on Christmas Day in 2010, Mr Jefferies assisted the Police with their enquiries. On 30 December 2010 Mr Jefferies was arrested and taken into custody for three days. Mr Jefferies was then released on Police bail. On 22 January 2011 Vincent Tabak was arrested on suspicion of Ms Yeates’ murder and formally charged the following day. Mr Tabak was convicted of Ms Yeates’ murder on 28 October 2011 and sentenced to 20 years in prison. All of the bail conditions in respect of Mr Jefferies were dropped.

There was no suggestion of any wrongdoing by Mr Jefferies. However, following Mr Jefferies’ arrest the Press suggested that the Police had their man.  In the words of Mr Jefferies to the Leveson Inquiry:

“I can see now that, following my arrest, the national media shamelessly vilified me. The UK 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’ murder and seemed determined to persuade the public of my guilt... by publishing a series of very serious allegations about me which were completely untrue, allegations which were a mixture of smear, innuendo and complete fiction. I have been told by friends and family that while I was in custody extraordinary efforts were made by the media to contact anyone who may have had any knowledge about me, including friends from schooldays whom I had not seen for some considerable time, and former pupils. The tabloid press undertook what was quite simply gratuitous dirt-digging.”

Mr Jefferies received apologies in open Court and substantial damages from the newspapers. The Attorney General brought separate proceedings for Contempt of Court. The publishers of the Sun Newspaper were fined £18,000 and the publishers of the Mirror Newspaper were fined £50,000.

Thankfully cases as serious as Mr Jefferies are not a daily occurrence, and also lessons have hopefully been learned from such a serious episode. But the case does highlight that an ordinary man of good standing in the local community can have his reputation harmed when the media makes mistakes.  “Fake News” can come in different forms, but traditional media still enjoy considerable public trust.

As media and reputation management lawyers we speak to individuals each day who are concerned to protect their reputation. Many of the complaints these days do not necessarily arise from articles published in newspapers, but from social media postings and other online statements. At a time when every social media user can publish whatever they want to – it is not difficult to see why reputations are tarnished at the click of a mouse.

If you have concerns about an article published on social media, in a newspaper or contained in a radio or TV broadcast, you can contact JMW Solicitors’ specialist Media and Reputation Management Department on 0345 872 6666.

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Dominic Walker is a Solicitor located in Manchesterin our Media Law department

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