The road to Monday’s verdict has been, to put it mildly, a bumpy one and praise must be given to Stephen’s parents, Neville and Doreen Lawrence, for the dignified way they have continued to fight for justice for their son. Much as it pains me, credit must also be given to the Daily Mail for their long campaign to see those responsible made to pay for their crimes.
By now everyone, including probably the jury that found Dobson and Norris guilty, must have seen the Mail’s 1997 front page naming them and three others as Stephen Lawrence’s murderers. When it hit the newsstands I remember thinking it was either a very bold move or very very stupid. Not because I had any reason to think the Mail wasn’t right, but because I was nervous about a newspaper acting as judge and jury, particularly that newspaper.
In his statement about the risks the paper ran with its ‘Murderers’ front page, the Mail’s editor (then and now) Paul Dacre explained how it was the ‘arrogant contempt’ of the suspects during the inquest, when they used their right to silence to refuse to answer any questions, which was the catalyst for publication. He goes on to say that there was long deliberation as to whether the paper would end up in court on a libel charge.
Both Dacre and the Mail’s lawyer came to the conclusion the five ‘had very little reputation to defend as is required in a libel case’ and the paper could establish, in any subsequent civil case, that it was probable they had murdered Stephen Lawrence. Events have shown that, for at least two of the killers, it was more than probable.
Dacre is not alone in believing his paper played a crucial role in delivering justice. Stephen Lawrence’s parents were unequivocal in their tribute to the paper. Neville Lawrence said ‘It was important for a lot of reasons. People started thinking ‘surely they would go after the newspaper if they hadn’t killed Stephen’’. Doreen Lawrence said she had been surprised at the front page but ‘then the whole country knew’ and that ‘it made a big difference to have that kind of support’.
Credit where credit is due, at the time the ‘Murderers’ front page was published it did seem as if no-one would ever be found responsible. Criminal proceedings, a private prosecution and an inquest had all failed to secure a conviction and it wasn’t just the Mail that was outraged at the prospect of five racist murderers getting away with it.
But newspapers have to tread carefully. Not just to ensure they don’t end up in the dock for libel but to ensure they don’t prejudice any future trial. It is rare for trials to collapse because of biased reporting, but by no means unheard of. Last year, the trial of Levi Bellfield for attempting to abduct an 11-year-old girl collapsed. The judge ruled that some of the coverage of the case, following Bellfield’s earlier conviction for the murder of Milly Dowler, meant he could not get a fair trial.
Bellfield may well spend the rest of his life in jail anyway, but the woman he tried to abduct just the day before kidnapping Milly Dowler was ‘extremely hurt and angry’ at being denied justice. I suppose at least in this case, and in the case of Stephen Lawrence’s killers, they got the right man. But papers are perfectly capable of getting it wrong.
In July the Daily Mirror and the Sun were found guilty of contempt of court for their reporting of the arrest of Christopher Jefferies, in connection with the murder of Joanna Yeates. He was later released without charge and was entirely innocent of any involvement, but the attorney general brought the contempt action because he felt the reports were ‘so exceptional, so memorable’ that they presented a ‘risk of serious prejudice’ to any potential future trial of Yeates' killer.
Sympathy for the wrongly accused probably doesn't apply to the men named, but not yet convicted, as Stephen Lawrence’s killers . However, the implications of these ‘trials by newspaper’ are the same. Indeed, the Spectator magazine was referred for contempt by the judge in the Lawrence trial. So it is perhaps ironic that the very headline that led Lord Donaldson, the former Master of the Rolls, to accuse the Mail of contempt of court could also have led to the conviction of two of Stephen Lawrence’s killers. Or did it?
People far better placed than me to know think it did, at least in part. I am not in a position to argue against the Lawrences, the prime minister, the Labour leader, former home secretaries, the chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the former deputy assistant Met commissioner, but it isn’t the ‘court of public opinion’, much less newspaper editors, that decides who is guilty.
The convictions of Dobson and Norris were only possible because DNA evidence came to light that put them at the scene of the crime at the moment of the attack on Stephen Lawrence. Unless there is a similar breakthrough in finding new evidence against the other three men, Neil Acourt, Jamie Acourt and Luke Knight, they will continue to walk free.
Thinking, even knowing, someone is guilty is not enough to convict them, and it shouldn’t be. It may seem a good idea to waive the rights of three probably quite unpleasant men who are quite probably guilty, along with Dobson and Norris, of murdering Stephen Lawrence, but that’s not how justice works. Even in this case there has to be proof ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’. Let’s just hope they find it.