Books: Crimes and punishments

Dull hate, absent dads - and institutional incompetence. Conor Gearty hopes that this infamous litany of error and malice will help to drag the Met into a better age
Click to follow
The Case of

Stephen Lawrence

by Brian Cathcart

Viking, pounds 16.99, 434pp

This book is a triumph of skilled reportage. Brian Cathcart is an experienced journalist with a number of books behind him. When the Lawrence tragedy first began to unfold in public, he threw himself into the case, poring over thousands of documents, interviewing scores of participants and then assiduously attending throughout the Macpherson inquiry, bearing first-hand witness as the truth about the role of the Metropolitan Police gradually emerged to an incredulous public. His writings on the subject are already familiar, from newspapers, magazines and literary periodicals. He has been our principal interpreter of the case of Stephen Lawrence, and now he has capped his achievements with this definitive account of the whole affair, from the actual murders to the public response to the Macpherson recommendations earlier this year.

The book is long and it has been published very fast. But it is in no way a cut-and-paste collation of earlier, instant work. It has its own coherent structure and a narrative form that is never repetitive or long- winded. Complex events and various twists and turns in the case are always explained with exactly the right degree of emphasis, the author deciding covertly on our behalf how much attention we should pay to them. So we never lose sight of the main routes, even when we are visiting cul-de-sacs.

Above all, there is the prose: clear, sparse, mercifully uncluttered by the adjectival excess and the psycho-babble that fill the empty spaces in lesser works. In the skilled hands of this writer, the whole terrible saga of Stephen Lawrence whizzes by in a few gripping, emotional hours.

Cathcart's sureness of touch is derived from his vocational certainty. He is a journalist; he is reporting the case, not evaluating it or theorising about it, or (above all) allocating blame in relation to it. There is no thesis being propounded here or defining perspective that we are required to accept. This gives the early sections of the book a particular quality, as the incompetence of the police, liberated from hindsight or the suspicion of any deeper agenda, appears in an unexpectedly sympathetic light.

There were too few officers; no one understood the computer system; the chief investigating officers were always changing; everybody was looking forward to the bank holiday break. Who in the "caring" public services does not recognise this picture? But when Cathcart turns in the latter third of his book to the allegations of racism and corruption that were to dominate the Macpherson inquiry, the reader is as surprised by the change as the Metropolitan Police were at the time.

With no proof of overt racism or explicit corruption to report, and with only facts upon which to rely, the overall effect of the Cathcart book (inevitable from its narrative structure) is far more sympathetic to the police than has been the case with previous coverage of this affair. The racial dimensions to the murder and investigation ended up going far beyond the confines of the Stephen Lawrence case itself, but this never quite comes through in the book, which is in this respect held back by its otherwise laudable insistence on fact.

Macpherson famously found "institutional racism" in the Metropolitan Police. Having read this book, it is possible to believe that while this is true, it was a second structural weakness - institutionalised incompetence - that was mainly responsible for destroying the Lawrence investigation. A third theme, institutional corruption, makes a haunting appearance towards the end of the book, and there can be little doubt that this was the big issue that ultimately eluded the inquiry team.

Certainly, there were enough indications of corruption around the Lawrence case to suggest that many of its layers of incompetence may have been carefully contrived, but nothing was ever proved. If it had been, the effect would have been to diminish the allegations of incompetence and of racism, since the single virtue of police venality is that its greed is colour-blind.

The Macpherson report took a very restricted approach to racism, treating the main suspects in the case as though they had sprung ready-made from the womb with a fully-formed but ineradicable virus of hate. The inquiry team's scores of recommendations are aimed at containing a phenomenon which it loudly declares it despises, but which it does little to try to understand.

This is the great weakness in the Macpherson report, and why it will not last in the way that Lord Scarman's Brixton analysis has. There is no social or political dimension to its analysis. Reporter though he remained throughout, Cathcart managed to add this deeper dimension in an oblique, understated way.

The most moving sections in his book recount with little comment the conversations the suspects had among themselves when under covert police surveillance. Leaving aside the horrors of knife movements and the like, it is a dull catalogue of inarticulate, stupid rage, in which a bunch of lost boys hold onto each other and spit hate at the world for protection. At other points, we read of these boys' defeats, their expulsions and removals from teams, and the dislike in which they were uniformly held.

Their mothers are famously on their side. But the missing link in the story is their always-absent dads.

And where do the Metropolitan Police stand after Lawrence? Almost certainly, those few days in the immediate aftermath of the report when Commissioner Condon refused to resign were both rock- bottom and, at the same time, a turning-point. Like any large organisation, the Met is almost certainly riven with many factions and perpetually divided as to how to deal with the world outside.

The calamity of the Lawrence case hands the baton of initiative to the progressive forces. The Human Rights Act, coming on stream in late 2000, will provide a further focus on human dignity and individual rights. The Metropolitan Police can choose truculent isolation - and eventual guaranteed extinction - or it can engage with its society, and "modernise" in true Blairite fashion.

It is unlikely to choose the former. The lasting legacy of Stephen Lawrence's tragic death may be that it has made the latter more possible now than ever before.

Conor Gearty is professor of law at King's College, London