How the press ignored the Lawrence story – then used it to change Britain

The Mail's stance was driven by anger at the contempt shown by the suspects to the justice system

It is no exaggeration to say the media's coverage of the Stephen Lawrence murder was transformational, forcing an unprecedented examination of the issue of race in British society.

Despite this, the morning after Stephen’s murder in Eltham, south-east London, on the night of 22 April 1993, the tragedy made only local news. The Independent was one of few news organisations to pick up on the story the following day, with an article on page 4 that quoted the police saying it was a “racial murder” and made reference to other similar killings in the area.

Fleet Street took a while to throw off its old instincts. When political protesters linked the Lawrence murder and other racial attacks to the local presence of right wing extremists, the papers turned on the demonstrators – such as militant black group Panther UK – who congregated outside the BNP national headquarters in nearby Welling. The Daily Mail ran an editorial: “Racism is abominable…but is there not also something contemptible about professional protestors who capitalise on grief to fuel confrontation?”

Yet whereas other murder victims such as Rolan Adams, who was stabbed to death less than two miles away, were largely ignored, the Lawrence case somehow struck a chord with the national press. Years later, the BBC made a programme asking the question Why Stephen? Brian Cathcart, author of The Case of Stephen Lawrence, said there was something straightforward about the killing which appealed to the media.

“You could actually prove that Stephen was not a gangster,” he said. “This was a clean-living, honest young man with ambitions, coming from a well-ordered and law-abiding home. There weren’t any defensive excuses that the white establishment could make for his death or the failure to investigate it.”

Marc Wadsworth of the Anti-Racist Alliance claims to have had success in persuading national news desks of the importance of the case, by stressing Stephen’s lack of criminal record and his ambitions to become an architect. “We were saying ‘Stephen Lawrence is like you.’” Nelson Mandela forced the media to push the issue up the news agenda when, on a visit to London, he spoke about the case and the apparent cheap value of black lives in Britain.

But the real step change in coverage came in February 1997 when the Mail cleared its front page to print pictures of the five suspects, under the headline “Murderers”. It was a remarkable moment, though the rival Guardian expressed doubts about the Mail’s motives. “It’s either a sincere conversion or a cynical stunt,” it said in an editorial that criticised the Mail’s previous coverage of the case.

Yesterday the Mail’s website carried an extraordinary 12 minute video in which the paper’s editor Paul Dacre – who is usually reticent to appear on camera – spoke emotionally of the decision making process in producing such a legally contentious front page. That night, he said, he had woken at 4am “drenched in sweat and convinced my career was all over”. He concluded by saying the Mail had shown a boldness “that I shall be proud of for the rest of my life”.

The extraordinary subtext was that Stephen’s father Neville knew Dacre, having done plastering work at his house. He had already complained about the Mail’s use of a photograph of his family in coverage of violent anti-racist protests. In her book, And Still I Rise, Stephen’s mother Doreen explained: “Neville was able through other journalists to reach him on the phone, and asked him, ‘How could you do that, and you know me?’ Since then the paper has been surprisingly supportive to our cause.”

The Mail’s stance was also the result of the paper’s anger at the swaggering contempt shown by the murder suspects to the British justice system at Stephen’s inquest, which ended the day before the front page article. Dacre yesterday called it a “sickening sight”.

The “Murderers” headline set the scene for the announcement by Home Secretary Jack Straw five months later of the Macpherson Inquiry, which highlighted the issue of “institutional racism” within the Metropolitan Police. Dacre said yesterday that Straw, a former Leeds University colleague, had told him that the Mail’s coverage had influenced his decision to order the inquiry.

Almost all media organisations gave prominent coverage to the case. Channel 4 invited Neville and Doreen Lawrence to give the alternative Christmas Day address in 1998. Then in the space of a few days in 1999, ITV screened a two-hour dramatisation, The Murder of Stephen Lawrence and the BBC broadcast a version of The Colour of Justice, a theatre production by the journalist Richard Norton Taylor based on court transcripts.

This prompted a media backlash from the suspects, as their mothers went on Radio 4’s Today programme to protest the innocence of their offspring. The five suspects gave interviews to ITV journalist Martin Bashir – later complaining his film had been unfairly edited. Gary Dobson also appeared on Talk Radio to take questions from the public.

But for all the media’s reporting, and the ramifications of that coverage across society, few new facts were unearthed and nobody brought to justice for the crime. When the case finally came back to court this year, The Spectator published a critical blog by Rod Liddle which has been referred to the Attorney General for possible contempt of court. 

* Stephen Lawrence: How the case breakthrough came
* A shrunken family: The first journalist to interview the Lawrences recalls the scene
* The science that helped convict Gary Dobson

Suggested Topics
News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
Voices
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Sport
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
sport
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Data Scientist

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A data analytics are currently looking t...

Web / Digital Analyst - SiteCatalyst or Google Analytics

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading publisher in...

Campaign Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A leading marketing agency is currently ...

BI Analyst

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A leading marketing agency in Central Lo...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little