Innocent man tells UK press inquiry he was 'vilified'

28th November 2011, Comments 0 comments

An innocent man arrested over a high-profile British murder was "shamelessly vilified" in a "frenzied campaign" to blacken his name, a media ethics inquiry heard on Monday.

Retired teacher Chris Jefferies was arrested but later cleared over the murder of 25-year-old landscape architect Jo Yeates, whose body was found on December 25 last year in a case which dominated British media over the Christmas period.

He brought uncontested legal proceedings against 40 articles in eight newspapers, which ran headlines such as "Jo suspect scared kids -- obsessed by death", "Jo Suspect Is Peeping Tom" and "The Strange Mr Jefferies: Creepy".

Dutch architect Vincent Tabak was last month convicted of the murder.

"I can see now that, following my arrest, the national media shamelessly vilified me," Jefferies, who was the victim's landlord, said in a statement to the Leveson inquiry as it entered its second week of hearings.

"The press set about what can only be described as a witch-hunt.

"The tabloid press had decided that I was guilty of Miss Yeates's murder and seemed determined to persuade the public of my guilt.

"They embarked on a frenzied campaign to blacken my character 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."

The media probe was launched by Prime Minister David Cameron in July amid the furore over the phone-hacking scandal at the Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World tabloid which has since been shut down.

Giving evidence on Monday, Jefferies told the inquiry in London that for a period after he was released, he was "effectively under house arrest" and so stayed with friends, "going from safe house to safe house".

He said news organisations got in touch with people he knew to try to find out information about him.

"The efforts which some members of the press went to to contact some of these people was quite extraordinary," he said.

Some articles suggested there may have been a sexual element to the murder, while others suggested he was gay and others that he was bisexual, Jefferies said, "so the press were trying to have it every possible way".

"It is incontestable that the whole slanting of the reporting was intended to be as sensational, as exploitative, as titilating in every possible way to appeal to people's voyeuristic instincts."

The inquiry could lead to major changes in the regulation of the press.

Singer Charlotte Church and Alastair Campbell, the former spin doctor of ex-prime minister Tony Blair, are due to give evidence this week.

Lord Justice Brian Leveson made an order Monday banning advance publication of documents submitted to the inquiry after Campbell's witness statement was leaked to a blogger.

During the dramatic first week of testimony, "Harry Potter" author J. K. Rowling and actors Hugh Grant and Sienna Miller launched an onslaught against the newspapers they accused of ruining their lives.

© 2011 AFP

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