What happened to former schoolteacher Chris Jefferies (landlord to murder victim Joanna Yates) is a clear-cut example of the British media trashing someone’s reputation. Amongst a series of entirely false allegations, some newspapers also sank to photoshopping Jefferies’ hair to make him look sinister. There was no public interest in the nasty speculation about Jefferies, nor can any of it be justified as “fair comment” (the two defences the Libel Reform Campaign want strengthened).
His lawyer, Hugh Tomlinson QC (who appeared at a recent Index on Censorship debate at the LSE), said:
We warned the media by letter, immediately following Mr Jefferies’ arrest, in the strongest possible terms to desist from publishing stories which were damaging or defamatory.
We were dismayed that our warnings went unheeded and are pleased that the newspapers in settling Mr Jefferies’ claims have acknowledged the extent of the damage to his reputation.”
News International, Trinity Mirror, Daily Mail & General Trust, Express Newspapers and Johnston Press will all now pay substantial damages and legal fees. There can be no doubt that Chris Jefferies was defamed in the most egregious manner — and the proposals put forward by the Libel Reform Campaign would make it easier for individuals like him to access justice. But the fact that the sums are undisclosed raises questions as to how reputation damage is measured by judges.
Just this week, Dr Sarah Thornton won her libel and malicious falsehood case against the Daily Telegraph and secured damages of £65,000. To put this into context, a factory worker condemned to death by asbestosis will usually receive maximum damages of £58,000. The hundreds of victims who died of mesothelioma from deadly asbestos dust spewed into the air by the Armley asbestos factory in Yorkshire got a paltry £17,000. It’s hard to see how “reputational damage” to a professional person (although admittedly damage) is comparable to death by asbestosis.
The legal profession argues that significant damages payouts are a way of holding the media in check — almost as a form of media regulation. The unhappy status quo on our libel laws means costs prohibit serious investigative journalism (especially in the local press), and the progress of scientific thought (impeded by bullying corporations), whilst individuals such as Chris Jefferies are defamed by sloppy innuendo and allegation, and awarded damages that are hard to justify.
Without wholesale libel reform, not as one minister said “mere codification”, important debate will be stifled, and victims of tabloid vilification, like Chris Jefferies, will have to use the courts to repair their damaged reputations.