Chris Jefferies pursued by the pressCredit: Tim Ireland/PA
The Sun and the Daily Mirror have been found guilty of contempt of court over their coverage of the arrest of Chris Jefferies, a suspect in the murder of Bristol architect Joanna Yeates.
The three judges presiding over the contempt case – the Lord Chief justice, Lord Judge, Lord Justice Thomas and Mr Justice Owen – said today (29 July), that the newspapers' coverage of the January arrest had created "substantial risks to the course of justice."
The Daily Mirror has been fined £50,000 and the Sun £18,000, and both have been ordered to pay costs.
Jefferies, who was Yeates' landlord at the time of her death in December, was arrested on suspicion of murder in January, but later released without charge.
Yeates' neighbour Vincent Tabak, a 33-year-old Dutch national, was later arrested and admitted manslaughter. He is awaiting trial.
The attorney general, Dominic Grieve, who presented the case against the newspapers after warning the media at the time that coverage was at risk of prejudicing a trial, said he "welcomed" today's judgement. Referring to three specific articles – one in the Sun and two in the Daily Mirror – he said that the decision was a reminder that the contempt of court act applies from the moment of arrest, and not from the moment a suspect is charged.
He said: "While there was a great amount of speculation and copy relating to Jefferies across much of the media, these three pieces of newspaper coverage were a different matter. They breached the Contempt of Court Act and the court has found that there was a risk of serious prejudice to any future trial.
"This prosecution is a reminder to the press that the Contempt of Court Act applies from the time of arrest."
A spokesman for Trinity Mirror, publisher of the Daily Mirror, said that the company would appeal the decision in the supreme court.
"Whilst we are pleased that the court cleared us of contempt on the grounds of prejudice we are dismayed that the same court has convicted us on the grounds that what we published created a substantial risk that the course of justice would be seriously impeded.
“The Attorney General submitted no evidence on this aspect of the application so we are at a loss to understand how the court could, according to the criminal standard, convict us.
“We will be appealing the case to the Supreme Court.”
The two Daily Mirror articles submitted to court, which the judgment described as "extreme", were headlined "Jo suspect is peeping tom" and "Was killer waiting in Jo's flat?". The allegation that Jefferies was a voyeur and the way in which it was presented was found to have conveyed the impression "to an objective reader" that he was that he was "somehow linked with not one but two awful, additional crimes".
The article asking whether the killer was waiting in her flat, which stated that there was no forced entry, was found to imply that whoever killed her had access to the flat, which was restricted to Yeates and Jefferies.
The complaint against the Sun focused on an article headlined "Obsessed with death", which was said to have built up a picture of Jefferies as having a "macabre fascination" and "academic obsession with death".
The judgement acknowledges that the coverage in the Sun and the Daily Mirror "did not have and could not have had any impact whatever" on trial of Jefferies' trial, because in the end he was not charged and so there wasn't one, but it goes on to state that the newspapers could not have known this at the time and so it was "irrelevant" to the contempt case.
Articles in both newspapers were criticised for the potential, in painting a wholly unfavourable portrait Jefferies, to deter witnesses from coming forward with information that could benefit his defence.
The judgement states that, although the directions of the judge, the integrity of the jury, and the so-called "fade factor" as time passes would be enough to ensure a fair trial, any trial could still be compromised by the possibility that evidence may not come to light as a result of the prejudicial coverage.
In a separate high court hearing this morning, Jefferies was awarded a "substantial" libel payout and a public apology from eight national newspapers over their coverage of his arrest.
Jefferies accepted an undisclosed sum from the Sun, Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror, Daily Mail, Daily Star, Daily Express, Daily Record, and the Scotsman.
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