Thursday 26 April 2018

Phone hacking inquiry: Jo Yeates’s landlord tells how he used safe houses

Ella Pickover, Ellen Branagh and Sam Marsden

THE retired teacher wrongly arrested for Joanna Yeates's murder felt like he was under house arrest because of the media frenzy surrounding him.

Christopher Jefferies was forced to move between friends, he told the Leveson Inquiry today.

The landscape architect's landlord, who was arrested on December 30, 2010, and later released until January 1, 2011, said: "Because the media interest was so enormous I was very strongly advised both by friends and lawyers not to go out.

"And in any case, if it had been apparent where I was staying, these friends would have been besieged by reporters and photographers.

"In effect for a period after I was released I was effectively under house arrest and went from friends to friends rather as if I were a recusant priest at the time of the Reformation I suppose, going from safe house to safe house."

Mr Jefferies said after his release from custody it was suggested it would be good for his "psychological health" if he did not read the press coverage in detail, and he had only started it after libel action was started against several publications.

The former English teacher, who taught at Clifton College in Bristol, said he originally gave two statements to police - the first was as everyone in the area was asked to give statements, and he later made an additional one with extra information he thought important.

He told how he came under the media spotlight just before his arrest on December 30.

"I think it was the day immediately before I was arrested, I was greeted by a large number of reporters and photographers as I was leaving the house one day, who seemed particularly interested to question me about the details of the second subsidiary statgement that I had given to the police.

"The press had certainly acquired a somewhat garbled version of what that second statement contained."

In his witness statement, Mr Jefferies said: "I can see now that, following my arrest, the national media shamelessly vilified me.

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

Mr Jefferies said that having his photograph on the front page of a number of papers had made him "instantly recognisable".

"I had a distinctive appearance and it was as a result of the entire world knowing what I look like that it was suggested to me that I ought to change my appearance so that I would not be instantly recognisable and potentially harassed by the media."

He told the inquiry that he brought legal proceedings against eight newspapers concerning 40 different articles. The Attorney General brought contempt of court proceedings in relation to three articles.

Robert Jay QC, counsel for the inquiry, asked Mr Jefferies about when he was referred to as a "sexually perverted voyeur".

Mr Jefferies said: "It was suggested there may have been some sort of sexual motive to the murder of Jo Yeates and at that time I was obviously a suspect of that murder.

"On the other hand it was suggested in some articles that I was gay so that created a problem as far as that was concerned.

"It was then suggested in another article that I was bisexual so the press were trying to have it every possible way."

Around the time of his arrest, a number of defamatory articles appeared in the press, Mr Jefferies said.

Headlines included "The Strange Mr Jefferies", "Jo Suspect Peeping Tom", "Jo Suspect Scared Kids" and "Was Killer Waiting in Jo's Flat?"

He was called "creepy" and a "nutty professor", and one article featured a former pupil who claimed was "fascinated with making lewd, sexual comments".

"That is an extraordinary comment to make," Mr Jefferies said.

"I would imagine that, had that been true, I would have been instantly dismissed."

He also referred to an article from The Sun from January 1 this year, titled "What do you think I am... a pervert?"

He said: "This is the most extraordinary article.

"The episode described is one of which I have absolutely no knowledge. Certainly I was never involved in such episode.

"It is 100% fabrication as far as I'm concerned."

Other articles detailed his teachings; one said he had an "obsession" with poet Christina Rossetti and another that he had an academic fascination with death.

"If I have anything that could remotely be described as an obsession, it would be my dislike of Christina Rossetti," he said.

"I never taught it and I would never dream of encouraging other people to read it."

It was also suggested that he was particularly fascinated with the Victorian "murder novel" The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins.

Mr Jefferies said: "It is not a murder novel. It is quite well known as being the first significant detective novel in English."

Police bail conditions on Mr Jefferies were lifted in March, and he told the inquiry his life was effectively "in abeyance" during that time.

"That couple of months immediately preceding that, while I was still under suspicion, was without doubt the most difficult period I think I have spent - living this hole-in-corner existence and with my life in effect being in abeyance," he said.

The inquiry heard that the retired teacher was contacted by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) about what could be done to prevent a recurrence of what had happened to him.

Reading from his reply, he said any redress the PCC may have given would have been "wholly inadequate".

"It is no wonder that the PCC is held in such low esteem," he wrote to the body.

"Indeed, I would suggest that the shocking and reckless irresponsibility displayed by sections of the media is in part attributable to the failure of the current regulatory system and the weakness of the voluntary code of practice."

In the letter, he said the "sacred cow" of press freedom had been allowed to license irresponsibility and "flagrant lawlessness".

The retired teacher told the inquiry today that he had never received an acknowledgement of his letter.

He said what had happened to him would continue to have an effect, despite successful libel actions.

"I suppose it is true to say there will always be people who don't know me, people who don't know anybody that I know, who will retain the impression that I am some sort of very weird character indeed who is probably best avoided," he said.

"I will never fully recover from the events of last year. The incalculable effect of what was written about me by these highly influential tabloid newspapers is something from which it will be difficult ever to escape.

"The purpose of my agreeing to give this statement is that I hope it may prevent the same fate befalling someone else."

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