Sir Paul's spin cannot alter the uncomfortable truth

Of all the players in the Lawrence case, it is the Met's commissioner who has most reason to sweat
GIVEN THE dreadful failings exposed by the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, the Metropolitan Police might have been expected to be awaiting its findings with some humility. Instead, in an attempt to duck one of the worst roastings of its 170-year history, the Met has embarked on a last-minute propaganda offensive.

The aim is to rubbish Sir William Macpherson's report in advance of publication later this month, and the results so far are a credit to the force's spin doctors. Over recent days, a rash of articles has appeared in newspapers traditionally sympathetic to the police, and further pieces are in the pipeline.

The message is always the same. The inquiry cannot hope to do justice to Neville and Doreen Lawrence - the parents of Stephen, the murdered black teenager - because it was hijacked by political activists hostile to the police and degenerated into a witch hunt intent on rooting out institutional racism.

Thus a columnist in The Times declared that the inquiry "has too much of the whiff of Salem to leave the unbiased anything but uneasy". The Daily Telegraph, meanwhile, denounced the inquiry's "McCarthyite approach" and warned that "a separate agenda is being foisted on a largely unwitting public".

Is it an accident that the two newspapers are singing from the same hymn sheet? Within the past fortnight, Sir Paul Condon, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, has, at his own request, paid a visit to both The Times and The Daily Telegraph to brief editors and journalists about the Lawrence case.

But the propaganda war is not being waged only at the Commissioner's level. After months of confusion about how to respond to the criticisms heaped upon the Met, the main trade unions - the Police Federation and the Police Superintendents Association - have condemned the inquiry as partial and unfair.

Nor are police the sole combatants in this battle for hearts and minds, as was illustrated by events following The Independent's recent revelation that the Lawrences' solicitor, Imran Khan, and barrister, Michael Mansfield, will be censured by the inquiry for their role in the private prosecution of the murder suspects. On the day the article appeared, Mr Khan let it be known that the family had uncovered yet another potential scandal, namely that the detective in charge of the Lawrence murder squad, Superintendent Albert Patrick, was being investigated in relation to alleged corruption elsewhere in the force.

One effect of this disclosure was to take the heat off the two lawyers - although Scotland Yard then produced a trump card, announcing at a hastily arranged press conference that John Grieve, the highly respected head of its racial crimes unit, would be taking over from Mr Patrick.

Even the reviled suspects - Neil and Jamie Acourt, David Norris, Gary Dobson and Luke Knight - are jostling to have their say. Their parents have written to the makers of a television documentary, insisting that their boys are innocent.

But of all the players, it is Condon who is in the spotlight, and it is he who has most reason to sweat. He has staked his reputation, and his job, on the inquiry's outcome, pledging to resign if he is personally criticised. In an interview last week, however, he made it clear that he is not prepared to fall on his truncheon. "I should have the courage to see through the reforms that will no doubt come out of the inquiry," he told the interviewer, who observed that "there's a near missionary zeal about Sir Paul as he outlines the work he would like to do in 1999".

Other articles have reflected the arguments that Condon advances in private to rebut criticism of his officers. As an example of the supposedly shabby way that witnesses were treated at the inquiry, for instance, he cites the grilling of an off-duty constable, James Geddis, who stopped to help Stephen. However, as Mr Geddis acknowledged to the inquiry, he was bound by the same professional standards as his colleagues on duty. And, as he admitted, he did not administer first aid to Stephen, or even examine him to locate his wound.

The notion that police gave evidence in a hostile atmosphere - interrogated by McCarthyite lawyers, abused by spectators - is being propagated throughout the Met and repeated by commentators who never set foot in the inquiry chamber in south London. It is a complaint first made last month, although the hearings ended in July, and it is an absurd distortion of what went on.

Yes, there was tough questioning by the Lawrences' lawyers, but that was their job. This was a public inquiry into why police failed to catch a gang of racist killers, and many of the important answers surfaced in cross-examination. Yes, the atmosphere was tense at times, but spectators more often laughed than heckled, so surreal was some of the evidence. Was testifying at the inquiry really more intimidating for police than patrolling the rougher streets of London?

Sir Paul appears to think so. What exercises him more than anything else, though, is the prospect that the inquiry report will accuse his force of institutional racism - those two words that stuck in his gullet when he gave evidence to the inquiry himself.

In the current flurry of articles, friendly newspapers have gone out of their way to ridicule that charge. Jack Straw, though, has made it plain that he wants the inquiry to be a springboard for root-and-branch reform of the police. The Home Secretary has even asked Sir William to come up with a new definition of that prickly term, institutional racism.

Sir Paul would do better to acknowledge the gaping wounds exposed by the Lawrence case than to skulk around behind the scenes defending the indefensible. The inquiry was fairly conducted and, if the report reflects what it revealed, no amount of spinning now will make the slightest bit of difference.