At the time of writing, Chris Jefferies has not been charged with any crime.
His photograph has appeared on the front page of national newspapers 11 times. He was described as "weird", "lewd", "strange", "creepy", "angry", "odd", "disturbing", "eccentric", "a loner" and "unusual" in the course of just one article. That the former English teacher should have liked the classic Oscar Wilde poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol was described by one article as "Chris Jefferies' favourite poem was about killing wife". That the teacher should have taught pupils about the horror of the Holocaust and a classic novel by Wilkie Collins was described as him being "obsessed with death". He was accused of being a 'peeping tom' by people who never made a complaint to police about his activities. One front-page headline asked of the landlord "Could this man hold the key to Joanna's death?" and the next day asked "Was Jo's body hidden next to her flat?" next to a picture of him.
Jefferies' sexuality has been discussed in couched terms - the Telegraph, among others, used the rather antiquated euphemism 'confirmed bachelor' - while the Sun simply quoted a former pupil saying "He was very flamboyant. We were convinced he was gay" and then followed it up with the sentence "You didn't want him to come near you." His blue-rinse hair has been discussed as 'an affectation'.
There are arguments about the public interest when it comes to a murder case; there are counter arguments about speculation and lurid intrusion into anyone's private life, especially when they haven't been charged with any crime. It's clear that Jefferies' character and lifestyle has come under huge scrutiny and it benefits the public very little to know any of this. Now is a time full of speculation and implication, of innuendo and finger-pointing; you might hope that the established media could demonstrate more restraint and subtlety than the blogosphere, proving their journalistic credentials and why they should be trusted news sources, but what we are left with from many sources is a trail of smearing and sneering.
There's something else: if you were a former pupil of Jefferies and you wanted to make a few quid, what kind of stories would you tell? The benign ones about his tutorship or professionalism, or the most sinister-sounding things you could think of? If you approached a tabloid wanting to tell them that this person was a really good egg, an excellent teacher and not weird at all, would they be interested? Would they run it? If they wouldn't, what would that say about the balance and equivalence in the stories about him? Are they all leaning to one direction because of the need to sex up the story, to make the figure under suspicion appear as strange as possible?
There may be parallels in the coverage with the trials by media undergone by Colin Stagg, Robert Murat, Barry George, the parents of Madeleine McCann and the first man to be accused of the Ipswich murders of 2006 (who was later released without charge). Some people do not fit in to orthodox ways of life, or may appear different, eccentric, whatever; some people don't act in the same way you or I might think we would act under similar circumstances. Some people are easy targets. You have to wonder whether some elements of the press have short memories or whether they don't care about the swirl of innuendo surrounding Chris Jefferies; whether flogging a few papers now on the back of a popular news story is more important than treating someone fairly; whether, even, they take a punt on some people, writing off possible legal costs against the benefit of extra sales.
I don't think prejudicing a possible fair trial in the future is the issue in these cases as juries do decide matters of fact based on the available information provided in the courtroom. But I think character assassination and targeting aspects of people's private lives, producing only stories that portray someone in a negative light, all at a time when they are unable to respond to accusations that are made against them, is unfair and inaccurate. I don't think anyone, a murder suspect or a murder victim, should be fair game to have their life turned upside down in public. But what do I know? Someone will turn up in the comments, as someone always does, saying "It sells papers". Maybe it does. But maybe that still doesn't make it the right thing to do.
Further reading: Timothy Moore - the lost honour of Chris Jefferies