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Saturday 1 January 2011

They Never Learn

While the cheaper end of the Fourth Estate has been speculating – in increasingly lurid detail – about the death of Joanna Yeates in Bristol last month, there seems to have been little attention paid to another story that started three and a half years ago, and led many of the titles concerned to collective and humiliating apology at the High Court in July 2008.

In early May 2007, toddler Madeleine McCann was abducted from an apartment in the Algarve resort of Praia da Luz. News media from around the world went into overdrive. At one point, an expat Brit called Robert Murat, who had been helping the local police with translation, was given Arguido, or “suspect” status (as, later, were Madeleine’s parents, Kate and Gerry).

From this point, around a hundred blatantly libellous articles were published by a variety of papers about Murat. He was likened to Soham murderer Ian Huntley, accused of being a paedophile, running paedophile websites, and of involvement in the child’s disappearance. None of this was true.

So it was no surprise that, in July 2008, Murat was awarded around 600,000 notes in damages. All the usual suspects owned up: Daily Mail, Mail On Sunday, Daily and Sunday Mirror, Daily and Sunday Express, Sun and Screws. It was the worst recent example of collective and deliberate libel. This less than finest hour may have been in Attorney General Dominic Grieve’s thoughts yesterday when he warned against any behaviour that might prejudice the Yeates case.

Grieve has good reason to issue his warning: at the Daily Mail, the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre’s obedient hackery has now settled on the nameProf Strange” for Chris Jefferies, who is being questioned over Ms Yeates’ murder, a title they have made up. Similarly, their sub-heading “Detectives probe theory intruder was waiting in flat” is conjecture, and all they have on Jefferies is that he is a single man of no fixed hairstyle.

Meanwhile, over at the Sun, Rupe’s downmarket troops are also letting speculation get the better of them: an unnamed woman has told of Jefferies’ “creepy” behaviour, that he was a “control freak”, and that she “thought he was bisexual”. Then a map is shown with the rhetorical question “Did the killer take one of these routes?”, a favourite of their Stateside cousins at Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).

Jefferies may yet be charged with Joanna Yeates’ murder. If so, he may subsequently get guilty. But that is in the realm of due process, and it is not in the gift of the Fourth Estate to pre-judge the outcome. The Attorney General’s warning has not come a moment too soon.

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