Today the innocent Mr Christopher Jeffries accepted an undisclosed sum from no fewer than 8 newspapers that he had sued for libel after they wrote fabricated and highly damaging articles about him following his arrest in connection with the Jo Yeates murder inquiry.
We are currently obsessed with the News of the World, its demise, the hacking of the phones of innocent people, and the Murdoch family. The behaviour of that newspaper, its subsequent lack of openness and honesty, and the disgraceful intrusion into the privacy of fellow citizens it perpetrated, have together rightly incensed us all. But if we allow the drama and sensationalism of this case to blind us to other equally glaring, and much more pervasive, misbehaviour amongst the press then Hack-gate will have caused even more damage by distracting us. The case of Christopher Jeffries is in every way appalling. Bad enough that the police arrested him anyway on what appears to have been the flimsiest of evidence. But even worse is the reporting of his arrest, and the character assassination that the press (and not only the tabloid press – is not The Scotsman a serious newspaper?) apparently felt entirely free to commit. They made up stories that Mr Jeffries was associated with paedophiles. That he had acted “inappropriately” with his former pupils. That he was connected with a previous unsolved murder. That he used his position as a landlord to intrude unreasonably into his tenants’ lives. There was not a word of truth in any of them.
It seems to me impossible to imagine a more terrifying and degrading experience than to be vilified in the gutter press without the slightest justification. Personally, I’d rather have my voice-mails hacked: at least I would have actually said the things that were thus discovered.
Yet where is the outrage at this case? Where are the calls for the resignations of the editors? Why are the proprietors not being hauled before the Select Committee? What happened to Mr Jeffries is not unique. It is merely a particularly blatant and disgusting example of what far too much of the press does all the time. It undermines the entire criminal justice system. It converts terrible events into freak-show prurience. It is, frankly, more significant, more damaging, more immoral than hacking individuals’ voice-mails.
But it sinks without trace. I wonder why. Actually, I know why. Hack-gate has the prominence it does because some sections of the press are at war with other sections. They are over-joyed at getting rid of a competitor. They are luxuriating in being able to point to behaviour even worse than their own. They can’t do the same in this instance because to do so would be to shoot themselves in the foot. It is not in their interests to campaign against outrages that they commit themselves, and which fuel their own circulations. So you will not find any part of the media getting behind a public campaign to deal with the kind of despicable journalism that the Jeffries case exemplifies. But if we care about the truth, about human dignity, and about justice, we should be even angrier about this than about hacking mobile phones.