Stephen Lawrence: it was the Daily Mail wot won it
THE Daily Mail is cheering the Stephen Lawrence verdict that saw David Norris and Gary Dobson found guilty of murder. The front-page headline was predictable, given that the Mail produced the famous “MURDERERS” cover accusing Luke Knight, Jamie Acourt, Neil Acourt, David Norris and Gary Dosbon of murdering Stephen Lawrence.
I was working on Fleet Street at the time. I loved the headline and the story. It was like a injection of energy. The Stephen Lawrence story had made blood boil. I met a barrister who had worked with the Acourts. In his chambers, he described the accused as “the most unpleasant people ever to sat on my chairs”. We all knew. But what could be done?
Doreen Lawrence, Stephen’s mother gives her thoughts:
“When the Mail first published their faces, up until that point nobody – apart from those in their local neighbourhood – really knew what these boys looked like. Then the whole country knew. They were no longer faceless people. That helped and also the part the media coverage played in bringing about the inquiry. If the Mail hadn’t been publicising what was happening around Stephen and getting it out there, a lot of people wouldn’t have known about the injustice around him as a young man.”
Stephen’s father Neville Lawrence:
“I was very pleased, but I admit that at first I was frightened, too, because I realised the implications. If you name people as murderers you have to be pretty sure you have the proof or you’ll be in trouble. But the fact that the Mail – which is a very influential newspaper – went out on a limb for us showed how committed you were to the case. Not a lot of editors would have done that. Not a lot would have chanced it.”
The Mail has every right to be proud of itself. You may wonder why the News of The World never hacked the phones of the accused men. Was it because the paper was too tight with the racist police to do anything?
The first 21 pages of today’s Daily Mail are dedicated to the Stephen Lawrence murder. In it there are traces of what the Mail has become, especially online: a misogynistic celebrity-fed haven where looks define the woman:
David Norris’s mother is a “bottle-blonde”.
Ray Dewar, a “henchman of Clifford Norris” is shown sat at a wedding table with his wife, Stella English, “winner of TV’s The Apprentice”.
“To a certain uype of insular, white, South London woman, however, Dobson’s notoriety made him a catch…he swaggered around his Eltham manor with a series of starry-eyed ‘molls'”
Dobson’s has partner named Michelle Lines:
“When the Mail attempted to talk to Miss Lines – whose middle name is Princess – we were warned away… But from entries on her Facebook page (adorned by a glamorous black-and-white photograph taken when she was soemwhat younger and slimmer…)
We are introduced to all the five men’s partners: Claire Vose (Neil Acourt); Terri Dean (Jamie Acourt); Belinda Harmer (Luke Knight): Charley Hunter (Gary Dobson pre Lines); and Deliah Allan (David Norris). The Mail now considers the women fair game.
Anyhow, the Mail has changed. But Paul Dacre, the paper’s editor, wants to explain how the Daily came up with that fantastic headline:
It was about eight o’clock. I reached for a layout pad. This was in the days before on-screen make-up and I literally wrote down with a thick pencil the words ‘Murderers’ and underneath it the sub-deck: ‘The Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong, let them sue us.’
I showed it to the senior sub-editors. There was a kind of nervous laughter, but then contempt of court is drilled into every newspaper executive’s thinking. And this was contempt of a cosmic order.
They obviously thought I was mad. Someone muttered ‘libel’ and I remember snapping: ‘The bastards haven’t got any reputation to lose.’
It was then that Eddie Young, the Mail’s lawyer and one of the shrewdest men I’ve ever met, became involved. To his eternal credit, he was unfazed by the headline.
He reinforced my feeling that the five had very little reputation to defend, as is required in a libel case. Some had records and came from notorious criminal families with long histories of appalling violence.
Yes, if it went to court, the Mail would have to establish that the men murdered Stephen Lawrence, but since it would be a civil case, we would only have to prove that it was probable that they had done so, which we were confident could be done.
I, Eddie and my deputy retired to my room to rehearse the arguments. The mood, surprisingly, was very calm. Clearly, there were many powerful reasons against the headline. But there wasn’t one over- riding reason not to do it.
The paper was due off at 9.45pm, and by then it was 9.30pm — the loneliest time of the day for any editor, when only one man can make a decision. Of course, I was desperately aware of the enormousness of what was being proposed. It’s not up to newspapers to accuse people of murder or act as judge and jury.
But if the suspects did sue, we would achieve what British justice had failed to do — get Stephen’s alleged killers into a court to answer questions.
After about five minutes on my own, I walked back on to the newsroom floor. The ‘Murderers’ page was made up with an alternative front page next to it. The mood was electric. ‘Let’s go,’ I said. ‘You can always come and visit me in jail . . .’
I went home and rang my wife to tell her what I’d done and how dangerous the men concerned were. As always, she totally backed me.
That night I took a sleeping pill. Despite it, I woke up at four o’clock in the morning — the time when all the decisions of the previous day suddenly assume terrifying proportions. I was drenched in sweat and convinced my career was over.
Next morning, the proverbial hit the fan. The whole media went into meltdown. TV carried our front page, but with the suspects’ pictures pixelated. The Telegraph declared I should be jailed and carried a cartoon of me flicking ink at the Old Bailey’s scales of justice.
For days, the story dominated the TV and radio news shows and even made international headlines.
The former Master of the Rolls, Lord Donaldson, pronounced his surprise and horror at the front page and accused me of contempt of court.
But other distinguished lawyers supported us, as did Doreen Lawrence, who said the front page was ‘wonderful’. Her local MP, Peter Bottomley, and Frances Lawrence, the widow of murdered head master, Philip Lawrence, also weighed in on our side.
But perhaps the thing that thrilled me most was the intervention of a hero of mine, Britain’s greatest judge, Lord Denning, who congratulated the Mail on ‘a marvellous piece of journalism’, adding ‘it was a brave and courageous thing for the Mail to do’.
That week we published, for the first time, the devastating pictures and dialogue from a secretly filmed police video of the suspects, which horrifically revealed their racism, violence and use of knives. These had never been published before because of legal restraints.
Three days later, the Prime Minister, John Major, backed the Mail. And on March 6, the fax machine in the room outside my office came to life with a letter from the Attorney General saying he had decided, after Lord Donaldson’s intervention, that there were no contempt of court implications for the Mail…
It was, I believe, a highly significant moment — the first time that many people in Britain realised that black readers were as important to the Mail as white ones.
Journalism matters. It can be brilliant, vital and exciting.