Record and Scotsman to pay damages for libelling landlord of murder victim

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by a Newsnet reporter

Two Scottish newpapers were amongst those forced yesterday to pay an undisclosed amount of libel damages to Christopher Jeffries, the landlord of murdered Joanna Yeates.  Mr Jeffries was vilified in the press when he was arrested by police investigating the murder.  Mr Jeffries was never charged, and was later ruled out of police investigations entirely, his innocence assured.  A neighbour, Vincent Tabak, has since admitted to the manslaughter of the Bristol landscape architect and will be tried for murder in September.

In an out-of-court settlement, lawyers for eight newspapers agreed to pay damages and legal costs to Mr Jeffries.  The exact figure has not been made public, but reports say that the damages are likely to be “at least” six figures.  The two Scottish newspapers who have agreed to pay damages are the Daily Record and the Scotsman.  Both papers published lurid stories about Mr Jeffries which were without basis in fact.  

Six English newspapers also agreed to pay Mr Jeffries damages for the lies and smears they had printed about him, the Sun, the Mirror, the Sunday Mirror, the Daily Mail,the Daily Express and the Daily Star.

All the newspapers printed lurid articles in the days following Mr Jeffries’ arrest, claiming he had links to paedophiles, had acted inappropriately with schoolchildren during his career in teaching.  One newspaper even alleged he had links to a previous unsolved murder.  None of the allegations were true.

Mr Jeffries’ lawyer, Louis Charalambous, described his client as “satisfied” with the outcome and said in a statement: “Christopher Jefferies is the latest victim of the regular witch-hunts and character assassinations conducted by the worst elements of the British tabloid media.”

The stories in the Mirror (stablemate of the Daily Record) and the Sun were so egregious that the Attorney General Dominic Grieve himself brought charges of contempt of court against the newspapers.  Mr Grieve issued a rare warning to the press at the time about their reporting of the case.  Two of the articles found to be in contempt of court were published after Mr Grieve had made his warning to the press about their conduct in the case.  

The contempt case was heard today in High Court in London.  In a written ruling, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, Lord Justice Thomas and Mr Justice Owen said that the articles published by the Daily Mirror had been “extreme” and added that their content would have posed “substantial risks to the course of justice” had Mr Jeffries been charged with any any offence.  The Daily Mirror was fined £50,000 and the Sun £18,000.

Attorney General Dominic Grieve welcomed the contempt judgement, saying it would encourage other newspapers to avoid the same type of coverage in the future.

Speaking to the BBC Mr Grieve said: “These were flagrant contempts of court and we had to prosecute … I am delighted that my view has been supported by the judiciary.   It is absolutely essential that the course of justice should not be impeded or prejudiced by the publication of material during the course of a case.

Some of these newspapers completely lost the plot.  They were engaged in a feeding frenzy which was going to impede the course of justice.”

Mr Grieves added that he hoped that the case would serve as a reminder to newspapers that the Contempt of Court Act applies from the time of arrest.

Mirror Group Newspapers have announced their intention to appeal against the ruling.