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Trial by media

17 January 2014

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HE WAS a single man with a funny way of walking. A former teacher at an independent school, he spoke of matters cultural, and had an attachment to the poetry of Christina Rossetti. And, as a matter of sheer bad luck, he was landlord to Joanna Yeates, who, in December 2010, disappeared, and was found murdered in Bristol.

All this was quite enough for the tabloids. Christopher Jefferies was dubbed "the strange Mr Jefferies". His interests were creepy; his manner was pathological. He had apparently been friends with a paedophile.

In Archive on 4: A Life Less Ordinary (Radio 4, Saturday), Mr Jefferies recalled the horrors of late 2010 and early 2011, when, on the basis of his being taken in for questioning, the print and social media went so berserk that the Attorney General had to step in to prevent any further contempt of court. The mauling that Mr Jefferies received represents a low point in the behaviour not only of the press, but of the wider public - the "casual cruelty", as the former editor of the Daily Mirror, Roy Greenslade, put it, of our prurient gaze.

That Mr Jefferies in fact detests Rossetti's poems can be seen perhaps as a minor infringement of the truth. That he was "friends with a paedophile", on the basis that his house had formerly been owned by somebody convicted of such offences, is a more damning reflection of the way in which the papers devised incriminating associations. But what is so scary about this case is how attributes that might, in other circumstances, identify somebody as a lovable eccentric were used as evidence of a criminal psyche.

In the end, the papers had to pay up. But David Aaronovitch, one of the contributors to this programme, said that all who contributed via Twitter and Facebook to the lynching of Mr Jefferies were complicit; the print media merely reflected back to us what we wanted to read. He might have addedthat we are more savvy readers of the print media than we used tobe, able to pick our way throughthe mix of fact and sensation-alism which typifies our modern press.

That may be so; but the story of Mr Jefferies presents us with a case where the media so egregiously maligned a reputation that it should surely provoke a debate about media roles and responsibilities. It is no good blaming people for believing at least some of what they read in the papers.

The same might be said of The Report: Right to die (Radio 4, Thursday of last week), though anger needs to be deployed with caution when dealing with euthanasia. The big question here is: does the experience of legalised euthanasia in Belgium prove the correctness of the slippery-slope theory? Legislators are now voting on whether terminally ill children can be legally killed.

The idea of euthanasia has become ordinary in Belgium, and many appear content with this, especially since, one survey suggests, it has reduced the numbers of people killed by "accidental" overdoses of palliative drugs. The liberalism of Belgian thinking on this will strike many of us as horrific; but it tells us only how quickly public thinking canmove on. Whatever you might think of the slope, it is certainly slippery.

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