We have reached the limits of trial by television

TV has developed a taste for celebrity thugs; the hard-man image they project goes down well
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The Independent Culture
IT'S A fact of journalistic life. Every now and again, it's your job to deal with the sort of human being you'd rather scrape off the bottom of your shoe. Into this bracket might fall child molesters, drug dealers and racist murderers. We can now add policemen whose bigotry allows black men to die in suspicious circumstances without any semblance of an investigation. However, if such encounters will tell a member of the public something, he or she needs to know that's the job.

The news that Panorama and London News Network have been in conversation with the five men who were suspects in the killing of Stephen Lawrence should not surprise us. As an employee of both the BBC and LNN, I do of course have an interest. But since it is unlikely that anyone would invite me to conduct such an interview, I can comfortably say that I can look at this dispassionately.

The immediate reaction of most black Britons is predictable. The Lawrence family has indicated its distress at the idea, on the grounds that the men had every opportunity to tell their story in court and chose not to do so. The former British National Party whistle-blower, Matthew Collins, has told the BBC that interviewing the men on prime time television would be a waste of licence-payers' money.

However, it is reasonable for journalists to ask whether such an interview will add anything to the knowledge we already have from the inquest and inquiry into the case. The broadcasters are promising tough, impartial interrogation. They say that if anything can be uncovered they will find it. It is even rumoured that the BBC has some new information, possibly a new witness to throw into the pot. Encouragingly for all the journalists, it is being put about that the men now regret taking their lawyers' advice to remain silent at the inquest and feel that "their side of the story" has not been told. They, it seems, had collectively decided that it was time to find a channel through which to proclaim their innocence.

There are some difficulties with this approach. First, the men have yet to offer a convincing explanation for their behaviour, shown on secret police video tapes, which showed them acting out graphic violence with a variety of lethal weapons, and abusing black and asian people with venom. Let me remind you of David Norris's jokes: "The coon's got knackered up... If I were going to kill myself, I would kill every black c***... skin the black c*** alive, torture him and set him alight. I would blow his two legs and arms off and say `Go on, you can swim home now'." It is hard to think what he would say in an interview that would explain the joke - it is said that the men claimed that they were simply "mucking about".

Second, the nagging question: if the five men have a story, why have they not told it before? If they simply want to say that they weren't there at the time and can offer an alibi, why not simply go to the police now and say so?

If they cannot clear themselves in this way, does anyone genuinely expect them to incriminate themselves on television? If, on the other hand they intend to say that they were in the area and have some evidence that would point the finger elsewhere, do they expect us to sympathise with them , after having put the Lawrence through five years of unnecessary anguish? I believe in forgiveness, but that's a level of tolerance that only the Almighty could afford.

All that said, I would not expect the journalists to pass up an opportunity, just in case there is a new revelation. The sad thing is that now the men have engaged the attentions of the publicist Max Clifford, they will get best advice possible about how to protect themselves and their own reputations, even if that is at the expense of justice. TV has now developed a taste for celebrity thugs, and, whether these men are guilty or not, the "hard man" image they have projected so far goes down well with a certain section of the TV audience.

Their swaggering appearance at the inquest was just a taste of what is to come once they are guided by Clifford into TV and radio interviews, followed by book deals and the chat-show circuit. In a sense they are bidding to be the heirs of the Krays and their associates, two of whom - the late Lennie McLean and "Mad" Frankie Frazer - have recently done the rounds of the talk shows.

Max Clifford is now entertaining bids for the story, and he will choose the vehicle that offers the men the best chance of emerging as underworld stars. ITV has not helped its own chances; according to LNN boss Simon Bucks, there will be no deals and no softball. It is the right thing for Bucks to say, but given that LNN has covered the story consistently and even-handedly for five years, the interrogation would be based on a deep knowledge of the case and would be fundamentally journalistic. If the men genuinely wanted to gain credibility and add to the process of finding the truth, they would choose this option.

Martin Bashir, who has been much maligned this week, is no patsy. Before that interview he was known as an annoyingly persistent investigator, who was responsible for turning up much damaging evidence about Terry Venables's business dealings. As far as I can recall, Panorama has not previously covered the Lawrence affair and will no doubt be accused of parachuting into a story of which it knows little. It is, however, rumoured that the programme has new material to offer, indicating that Stephen Lawrence was the victim of mistaken identity.

But whatever he has on the story, Bashir's career has become yet another victim in the Diana story , already littered with dozens of shattered reputations. Fairly or unfairly, he is no longer judged by the standards of other reporters. His interviewees have to be bigger and more revealing than anyone else's. However tough he intends to be, unless he can produce incontrovertible evidence of guilt, he will never satisfy his critics; and his own celebrity will give the five creeps a credibility that they do not deserve in any circumstances. It is a desperately bad position for him to be in, and not his fault. In the Louise Woodward case, very little hung on the final outcome; but when it comes to Stephen Lawrence, there is still too much that is too important to too many people to treat this as just another TV event.

If we are to reach the truth, find the culprits and change the behaviour of the police, the affair should not be clouded by the "Bashir effect". That is, of course why we can expect to see the five on television one Monday night soon.