The Lawrence Report: The Media - Case united every shade of opinion

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The Independent Online
THE MURDER of Stephen Lawrence and subsequent police investigation has been one of those rare instances in which a story and its injustices have gone beyond the boundaries of news reporting and - through plays and television drama - moved into the realms of popular culture.

The case has raised profound and searching questions about racism, police corruption and the legal system and, in doing so, provided a near constant source of moral outrage for media of every political hue and cultural disposition.

One of the key elements in keeping the Lawrence case in the public's attention was the astonishing decision by Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail at the time, to name and picture the five white youths accused of the murder under the headline `Murderers' on the front page on 15 February 1997.

The Daily Mail has a history of stoking middle England's fears of immigrants and is usually blindly loyal to the police, so its first reporting of the Lawrence case focused less on the murder than on the `race extremists' who were using Stephen Lawrence's parents as `pawns'. However, the Mail's subsequent interest was special because Neville Lawrence knew Paul Dacre personally - as a plasterer he had worked on the editor's home when it was being redecorated.

But the story of the murdered black teenager has resonated beyond the traditional limits set by news pages and news bulletins. Stephen's parents, Doreen and Neville, delivered Channel 4's alternative Christmas Day address last year and, in January this year, the Tricycle Theatre in north London premiered the Colour of Justice, a reconstruction of the inquiry into the police investigation.

Based on inquiry transcripts, the play was staged by the company previously responsible for Half the Picture, a dramatisation of the Scott inquiry into arms to Iraq, and Srebenica, which covered the war crimes tribunal at the Hague.

The reviews were unanimous: "Compelling"; "The most vital piece of theatre on the London stage"; "Everyone who cares about the health of the community should see this play". The theatre was besieged with eager punters and television crews. "I've never seen anything like it," artistic director Nicholas Kent said. "I think it was people wanting to show solidarity with the Lawrences. This was a way of saying, `we're involved'."

Colour of Justice quickly transferred to the West End and, following intensive lobbying of the BBC's broadcast director Alan Yentob (after a panel discussion on the play's first night, Jon Snow urged the audience to e-mail the corporation), it was filmed for television and screened on BBC 2 last Sunday.

Last Thursday, ITV screened The Murder of Stephen Lawrence, a two-hour dramatisation which starred the Oscar-nominated actress Marianne Jean- Baptiste and dealt with the killing and its aftermath.

Told from the point of view of the Lawrence family, it moved one critic to conclude: "The film's peak-time showing on our most watched channel could prove to be crucial in turning the murder into one of those real- life parables that actually changes how a people thinks about itself."

Rhys Williams and Paul McCann