Stephen Lawrence: How Paul Dacre’s chance meeting with Neville Lawrence helped justice
IT’S Day 3 of the Daily Mail’s post-verdict reporting on the murder of Stephen Lawrence by David Norris and Gary Dobson. The Mail deserves credit for its fantastic headline which labelled five men “MURDERERS” – including the convicted Dobson and Norris. It was brave and exciting journalism. Mail editor Paul Dacre’s tale of what went on in the newsroom is a great read. The Daily Mail is understandably pleased with itself.
So far the paper has led with:
January 4 front page: “MURDERERS! – 15 years ago, the Mail took the momentous decision to accuse five racist thugs of murder, Yesterday, as Stephen Lawrence finally got justice, we were proved right about two of them. Now what about the other three…”
The story runs for 21 pages.
Jan 5 front page: “NO PLACE TO HIDE – Judge jails two of Stephen’s ‘evil’ killers then tells police to hunt down thre ‘three or four’ others still at large’.
“EXCLUSIVE: Doreen Lawrence opens her heart and cherished family photos album”
Jan 6 front page: “EXCLUSIVE: How Stephen’s murder destroyed my marriage”
Over three pages, Stephen Lawrence’s father, Neville Lawrence, shows more photos of his son and tells his own life story.
Papers love to show off their highlights. But the Mail is also full of lowlights – see its homophobic attitude to dead Boyzone singer Stephen Gately. The trick is to get on with the next scoop and campaign. The grandstanding Paul Dacre did well but the likes of BBC reporter Joe Casey, who went undercover for five weeks (see bladding and lying journalists) to investigate abuse at the Winterbourne View care home is a real star.
And, then, was Dacre’s account the full story?
Angry Mob reproduces a Guardian editorial published on the 15 Feb 1997. It followed the Mail’s “MURDERERS” headline:
Cynics can also point to a very belated conversion by the Mail. Until yesterday, the Mail’s coverage of the shameful killing had been somewhat peripheral. The murder was only mentioned in three stories in the last year before the inquest, only six the previous year, and just 20 since the murder was committed. Moreover, compare yesterday’s leader with the paper’s editorial shortly after the murder which, while hoping the guilty would be caught, was quick to sneer at the supporters campaigning for the Lawrence family: “What is not helpful is the gusto with which the more militant of the anti-racist organisations have hijacked this human tragedy. The black African leader Nelson Mandela was enlisted, while on a visit here, to give publicity to the case. Racism is abominable . . . but is there not also something contemptible about professional protesters who capitalise on grief to fuel confrontation?”
Anti-racism has become the binding national trait witnessed in the treatment of Diane Abbott. The murder of Stephen Lawrence was not just about racism – it was also about police corruption and a violent crime. Would the vehement anti-racist help the case, promote openness and help catch the killers? Or would their presence just polarise views and make everyone an anti-racist or a racist?
We also see an Observer article printed on the 16 Feb 1997: “Hostile Mail changed tack on Lawrence justice campaign.” We are told:
THE Daily Mail, the newspaper which last week named as ‘murderers’ the five white youths linked to the killing of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, was originally hostile to the campaign to bring his killers to justice…
the reporter dispatched to cover the story last night told the Observer that the Mail changed its editorial line to support the close family of Stephen Lawrence when it emerged that Stephen’s father had once worked as a plasterer and decorator for Paul Dacre, the paper’s editor.
When the newspaper first covered the story in 1993, Hal Austin said he was ‘detailed’ to write a ‘knocking’ story about the Lawrence campaign, which it believed was orchestrated by a ‘rent-a-mob’, did not have the family’s approval and which it condemned in a fierce leader…
In May 1993, shortly after Stephen’s murder at a bus stop in Eltham, south-east London, the paper sent Mr Austin, a black reporter, to interview his parents, Neville and Doreen.
Stephen’s murder had ignited passions in the area. On the previous Saturday, 19 people, including five policemen, had been injured in street protests. Several rival political and anti-racist groups had contacted the Lawrences to offer their support.
The initial Mail approach was to treat the ‘campaign’ with hostility. Mr Austin, who no longer works for the Mail, said yesterday: ‘I was detailed to write a story knocking the campaign.’
During the interview with the family, Mr Lawrence asked what would appear and made inquiries about the Mail editor. He asked if he was a tall, balding man with a house in Islington. It emerged he had worked for Mr Dacre some 10 years previously. Mr Austin advised the dead boy’s father to contact Mr Dacre directly. It is understood that there was a phone call to Mr Dacre at about this time.
‘The following day my instructions were suddenly changed,’ Mr Austin said. ‘I was told by the news desk to forget the previous instructions and that they now wanted a positive story.’ Mr Austin felt the original approach undermined the family’s case because it implied that their grievances were not to be taken seriously.
The part about the “balding” Dacre has a whiff of Guardian-injected karma, given that the Mail is a paper that loves to highlight a target’s physical imperfections. It is true that Neville Lawrence once worked for Paul Dacre. You can read the story of how the Mail altered its story in Nick Davies’s Flat Earth News ( p373).
Society has changed – and certainly for the better in the last 30 years. Campaigns against racism have worked. The Mail took a risky stance and won thanks to a combination of bravery, luck and great news sense.
The Mail’s attitude to race is, of course, moveable. All newspapers need to feed their readers’ prejudices. It helps them sell papers.