Lawrence `stunt' leaves nasty taste

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The Independent Online
THE INTERVIEWS with the five Lawrence suspects were conducted amid a storm of controversy. For six years, the men had refused to talk about Stephen's racist murder. The ethics of giving them a platform on national television seemed doubtful, to say the least.

The uncomfortable questions raised by last night's programme - the launch edition of ITV's current affairs flagship Tonight, have not gone away.

But the anger of Stephen Lawrence's parents, Neville and Doreen, will to some extent be assuaged by the fact that the men's high-risk strategy of finally giving their side of the story may have backfired.

The five - Neil Acourt, Gary Dobson and Luke Knight, all 23, and Jamie Acourt and David Norris, 22 - were interviewed separately by Martin Bashir, whose previous interviewees include Diana, Princess of Wales and Louise Woodward, the au pair convicted of manslaughter in the United States.

Whether the men's disclosures take the police investigation much further remains to be seen. Neil Acourt, Dobson and Knight have already been acquitted of killing Stephen and are thus immune from prosecution in the future.

John Grieve, who heads the Metropolitan Police's task force on racist crime and is in charge of the Lawrence investigation, is planning to scrutinise tapes of the interviews. Police took court action last week to obtain copies, but then agreed to wait until after transmission.

Last night's screening followed a day of frantic legal consultations by Granada, the programme-maker, which cancelled an afternoon press preview at the last minute.

Distaste about the programme led to a rare meeting of minds between the Lawrences and the Metropolitan Police Federation, both of whom condemned it as a "publicity stunt". Mr Lawrence told BBC Television yesterday: "These boys have been given several opportunities in the courts. This is just a publicity stunt to try and say they didn't kill my son." Glen Smyth, chairman of the federation, challenged the men to "present themselves at a police station by appointment to be interviewed by police officers and answer the difficult questions, as opposed to being interviewed by a journalist".

Jeff Anderson, editor of Tonight, defended the programme as valid journalism. He described the questioning as "rigorous and detailed" and said the five men were given no chance to confer between interviews. After lawyers for the Lawrences were shown a preview yesterday morning, Mr Anderson said: "We are pleased that Mr and Mrs Lawrence's lawyers now acknowledge that the programme does produce significant new information offering new lines of inquiry."

The decision of the five men to break their silence follows six years of stubborn stonewalling. They refused to answer questions, or said little, when they were arrested in 1993. At Stephen's inquest in 1997, each invoked his right to privilege against self-incrimination.

When called to Sir William Macpherson of Cluny's public inquiry last year, they went to the High Court and secured a ruling that limited the scope of questioning. Even then, they gave only monosyllabic or evasive answers. In his report, Sir William condemned their performances in the witness box as "arrogant and dismissive".

According to their mothers, who gave a radio interview earlier this year, this approach was in line with legal advice.

Strangely, they were not advised against talking to Mr Bashir. In fact, according to Granada, it was they who approached him after taking advice from the public relations consultant Max Clifford.

ITV and Granada were congratulating themselves last night on a spectacular journalistic coup for the new programme. For many people, though, it left a nasty taste that will persist long after the publicity has subsided.