Leading article: Why the heart must not rule

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Trial by media is a hackneyed phrase, deployed from time to time to condemn an excess of zeal, usually by the tabloid press. Often, offence has been taken wrongly, but the behaviour of the Daily Mail on Friday in branding five young men as the murderers of Stephen Lawrence, the black A-level student stabbed to death in south London in 1993, is the genuine article. The five have not been convicted of the crime. After a prolonged, if not particularly skilful police investigation, they were charged with various offences relating to Stephen Lawrence's death. They were discharged by the law courts. Last week they chose to remain silent at the Coroner's inquest. They were acting within their rights. None the less, their pictures appeared on the front page of the Daily Mail under the headline "Murderers". Subsequent reports showed frames from police surveillance video footage showing that at least two of the five had a taste for long knives and racial violence, and hatred of black people. That is disquieting, revolting even in this case, but it does not justify condemning them as murderers.

We do not defend the men. They had the opportunity to speak and did not do so. The Mail's stance is bold and shows the law, which has been unable to try the men, to be an ass in this case, but that comes as no surprise. But it makes for a feeling of unease.

The motives of the Mail are confusing. Sceptics have been quick to suggest that the campaign has been started in order to raise circulation, but this suggests a greater degree of cynicism than we have been able to detect in the British press. A more likely explanation is an outburst of ferocious indignation by Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail, to whom indignation comes easily and often. Mr Dacre knows the Lawrence family personally. Neville Lawrence, Stephen's father, had worked at Mr Dacre's home and Mr Dacre would have been intimately acquainted with the suffering, frustration and anger of the Lawrence family.

But Mr Dacre has entered a moral maze, and we are compelled to follow him into it. Is his paper going to brand suspects as murderers in every case which fails to reach the right verdict, in a weekly column perhaps? Or will the anger of the Daily Mail be unleashed only when one of its senior executives is personally acquainted with someone involved in a controversial case? And, if this is the case, is that necessarily a wrong way for a newspaper to conduct its business? Finding a way through this maze is troubling because it involves the deep emotions racism arouses, and a belief that the civil liberties of defendants in our courts should be defended at almost any cost. In our hearts, we applaud the Daily Mail. In our heads we know it is wrong. And heads must rule.

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