Stephen Lawrence, and the power of public opinion
I spoke before about how the Americans have yet to utilize a really strong tool. This really Strong Tool is the primary way the British People lay sanctions and keep in line, their ellected parliamentarians.
Its all about the power of the press....and the semi conclusion of a case today shows how one of the hardest possible areas of public pressure has caused successive Governments to bow to the wishes of the public.
Often, a single bout of negative press in one of the Nations large Tabloids is enough to change the Governments mind on issues, or at least force debate. But the Daily Mail is perhaps the most Right Wing of them all. I like to read the Daily Mail everyday over my breakfast
Anyway, a long time ago in 1993, a Black youth was murdered whilst waiting for a bus, the original investigation was bungled pretty much by police. So, going against double jepody laws in order to run a retrial with new evidence gained this century was a long and arduous task that became a long running Campaign in the Daily Mail...whilst not alone, it certainly was the loudest and most consistant voice in the past twenty odd years that eventually led to the trial and conviction of two out of five originally accused.
The Daily Mail began its campaign with a front page spread, the likes of which I dont believe this country has ever seen before. It printed the photographs of the Five accused, Named them all and said
"Murderers: The Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong, let them sue us."
Following the convictions this week, the editor gave a statement:
This is a glorious day for Neville and Doreen Lawrence who after all the betrayals, injustice and tears have finally, after nearly two decades, secured justice for Stephen.
It's a glorious day for the police, who – after the utter disgrace that was the original investigation – have through sheer bloody perseverance and brilliant detective work wiped out this blot on the Yard's history and shown that British policing at its best is still something to be proud of.
It's a glorious day for British justice which shows that, while mistakes can be made, our judicial system does provide redress for every member of British society whatever their racial background.
It's a glorious day for the politicians – particularly Jack Straw and David Blunkett – who, responding to the Mail's campaign, commissioned the MacPherson Inquiry and reformed the centuries-old double jeopardy law – thus allowing the trial of two of the original suspects after a criminal action, a private prosecution and an inquest had failed to secure justice for Stephen.
And finally, it's a glorious day for British newspapers, proving that the power of journalism, courageous headlines and relentless campaigning can act as a huge force for good in society and make a major difference to countless lives.
Quite simply, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that if it hadn't been for the Mail's headline in 1997 – "Murderers: The Mail accuses these men of killing" – and our years of campaigning, none of this would have happened.
Britain's police might not have undergone the huge internal reform that was so necessary. Race relations might not have taken the significant step forward that they have. And an 18-year-old A-Level student who dreamed of being an architect would have been denied justice.
The Daily Mail took a monumental risk with that headline. In many ways, it was an outrageous, unprecedented step. But I'd like to think that as a result we did a huge amount of good and made a little bit of history that day.
In truth, however, I think that headline had almost subconsciously been brewing in my mind for some time because there had been a sense of rage building up in the Mail's conferences over the sheer injustice of the Lawrence case.
Our crime reporters, who had spent months investigating the case and had a huge dossier on the suspects, were absolutely convinced of their guilt.
By sheer chance earlier in the week of the inquest, I'd had lunch with one of the Yard's most senior police officers who said words to the effect that he'd stake his life on their guilt.
Four of the five, you will recall, had refused to provide alibis. The fifth had, but it didn't stand up.
The suspects had been given every chance to disprove the charges against them but had refused every opportunity to do so.
For me, the most sickening thing was the arrogant contempt of the suspects in refusing to answer any questions at the inquest, citing their legal right to silence.
But it was the devastating report on that night's TV news that the coroner's jury had taken just thirty minutes to decide unanimously that Stephen had been unlawfully killed – the victim of a completely unprovoked racist attack by five white youths – that was the catalyst.
It was about 8 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 now 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. (oh the joys of the working hypothesis methodology of conviction in civil law )
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 9.45 pm, and by now it was 9.30 pm – 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 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 pages but with the suspects' pictures pixelated.
The Telegraph (nasty left wing socialists that they are ) 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 headmaster 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 6th 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.
But the most heart-warming thing about those few days was the reaction of the Mail's readers. For days, our phones went into meltdown with their calls and, God bless them, there was not one dissenting voice. To the last one, they supported us.
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.
Of course, that headline, while hugely significant, was only the first step. For the next few months, our campaign moved into overdrive. In June, the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, ordered a judicial inquiry into the Lawrence case to be conducted by Sir William Macpherson. Jack, whom I'd known at university, told me that it was the Mail's coverage that persuaded him of the necessity of this move.
In September 1997, we carried a major story saying that senior officers were desperate for new laws to allow the suspects to be re-tried for Stephen's murder.
In December, we reported that the police watchdog had found conclusive evidence of appalling errors by detectives which had allowed Stephen's killers to escape justice.
In July the next year, we disclosed a jury-nobbling scandal involving one of the suspects, David Norris, when he was controversially acquitted of attempting to murder another man.
In December, we revealed that a draft copy of the Macpherson report declared that the Lawrence murder probe was hampered by racism across virtually all ranks – the first indication of the devastating conclusion of institutional racism which would be unveiled in his final report.
In January 1999, in another front page exclusive, we revealed how not a single police officer would be disciplined over the botched investigation.
The following day under the heading "The Untouchables" we named and shamed the officers who'd been responsible for the shambles and revealed how urgent reforms of police disciplinary rules were being demanded by the police watchdog.
Throughout the Mail campaign, we highlighted the need for the double jeopardy law – which prevented an individual being charged with the same crime twice – to be reformed. Such a change would allow Stephen's suspected killers – who had been charged in the family's private prosecution – to stand trial again if new evidence emerged.
The 800-year-old law was finally reformed in 2005 by the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, a man whom I'd come to like and respect. Many senior police officers and prosecution officials believed that this momentous change would not have occurred but for the relentlessness of the Mail's campaign.
I always tell people who ask that the secret to editing is to be both bold and cautious. It's knowing when to be which that's the problem. That day in February 1997 I think we were bold in a way that the Mail can always be proud of.