Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre on why he accused Stephen Lawrence murder suspects on front page

Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre on why he accused Stephen Lawrence murder suspects on front page

London360 has just received an interview with the Daily Mail’s editor, Paul Dacre, who made the courageous yet some believed ‘outrageous’ decision to not only print photos of the key five suspects of the case on the paper’s front page, but to accuse them as murderers. He explains why he felt so strongly about his decision and what provoked him to take such drastic measures to highlight the issue.

“You know, this really is a glorious day for Neville and Doreen Lawrence. After all the betrayals, injustice and tears, and finally after nearly two decades, secured justice for Stephen. It’s a glorious day for the police who after the UTTER disgrace of the original investigation, have through sheer bloody perseverance, brilliant detective work, wiped out this blot on the history and showed that British policing, at it’s best, is still something to be very proud of.

It’s a glorious day for British justice, which shows that while mistakes can be made, our judicial system does provide redress for every member of British society, WHATEVER their racial background.

It’s a glorious day for the politicians, particularly Jack Straw and David Blunkett, who responding to the Mail’s campaign, commissioned the MacPherson inquiry and reformed the centuries old ‘double jeopardy’ law. Thus allowing the retrial of two of the original suspects after a criminal action, private prosecution and an inquest failed to secure justice for Stephen.

And finally it’s a glorious day for British newspapers proving that the power of journalism, courageous headlines and relentless campaigning can act as a huge force of good for society and make a major difference to countless lives. It’s not up to me to say but many senior people believe that if it hadn’t been for the Mail’s headline in 1997 “Murderers: The Mail accuses these men of killing” and our years of campaigning, none of this would have happened. Britain’s police might not have undergone the huge internal reform that was so necessary. Race relations might not have taken the significant step forward that they have. And an 18 year old A Level student who dreamed of being an architect would have been denied justice. Yes, The Mail took a monumental risk with that headline. In many ways, it was an outrageous, unprecedented step. But I’d like to think that as a result, we did a huge amount of good and made a little bit of history today.

I think I had that headline subconsciously brewing in my mind for some time. Because there had been a sense of rage building up in The Mail’s conferences for some many weeks over the sheer injustice of the Lawrence case. Our crime reporters, who had spent months investigating the case, had a huge dossier of suspects were absolutely convinced of their guilt. By sheer chance, earlier in the week of the inquest, I myself had lunch with one of the most senior police officers who said words to the effect that he’d stake his LIFE on their guilt.

Four of the five you’ll recall had refused to provide alibis. The fifth had but it didn’t stand up. The suspects had been given every chance to disprove the charges against them but had refused every opportunity to do so. That day, after the suspects had refused to answer any questions, inciting their legal right to silence, the coroner’s court took just 30 minutes to decide unanimously that the 18 year old student had been unlawfully killed. The victim, completely unprovoked, race attacked by five white youths. But for me, it was the sickening sight on the night time TV news of those five men strutting and swaggering as they left the court. Swearing, effing and blinding in defiance was the catalyst.

It was about 8 o’clock, I reached for a layout pad, this was in the days before on screen make up and I literally wrote down with a thick pencil, the words ‘Murderers’ and underneath it, the subject, ‘The Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong, let them sue us.’  I showed it to the backbench sub-editors. There was a kind of nervous laughter. But then contempt of court is drilled into every newspaper executive’s thinking and this was contempt of a cosmic order. They obviously thought I was slightly mad. Someone muttered “libel” and I remember snapping, “The bastards haven’t got any reputation to lose.”

It was now that Eddie Young, The Mail’s lawyer, one of the shrewdest men I’ve ever met, became involved. I showed him the pad and to his eternal credit, he was unfazed by the headline. He reinforced my feeling that the five had very little reputation to defend, as is required in a libel case. Some had records and came from a notorious crime family and long histories of appalling violence. Yes, if it went to court, The Mail will have to establish that the men murdered Stephen Lawrence. But since it was a civil case, we would only have to prove that it was probable that they had done so. Which we were confident could be done. By now it was 9 o’clock and the paper was off stone at 9:45pm. I, Eddie and my Deputy retired to my room to rehearse the arguments. The mood was surprisingly very calm. Clearly, there were many, many powerful reasons against the headline. But there wasn’t one overriding reason NOT to do it. By then, it was 9:30, the loneliest time of the day for any editor. Only one man can make the decision. Of course, I was desperately aware of the enormity of what I was proposing. It’s not up to newspapers to accuse people of murder or act as judge and jury. But if the suspects DID sue, we would achieve what British justice had singularly failed to do: get Stephen’s alleged killers into court to answer questions.

After about 5 minutes on my own, I walked back onto the floor, the ‘murderers’ page was made up, with an alternative front page next to it. The mood was electric. “Let’s go,” I said, “You can always come visit me in jail.” I went home and rang my wife in the country to tell her what I’d done and how dangerous the men concerned were. As always, she totally backed me. At night, I took a sleeping pill. Despite it, I woke up at 4 o’clock in the morning and the time went on for years. All the decisions of the previous day suddenly assumed terrifying proportions. I was drenched in sweat and convinced my career was all over.

Next morning, the proverbial hit the fan. The whole media went into meltdown. TV carried our front pages but with the suspect’s pictures pixelated. The Telegraph declared that I should be jailed and carried a cartoon of me flicking ink at the Old Bailey’s scales of justice. For days, the story dominated the TV and radio news shows and even made international headlines. The former Master of the Rolls, Lord Donaldson, pronounced his surprise and horror at the front page. Accused me personally of contempt of court.  But other distinguished lawyers supported us. As did Doreen Lawrence, who said the front page was wonderful. Francis Lawrence, the widow of murdered Headmaster, Phillip Lawrence, also weighed in on our side. But perhaps the thing that really thrilled me was the intervention of a hero of mine, Britain’s greatest judge, Lord Denning, who congratulated The Mail on quotes “A marvellous piece of journalism” adding quotes, “It was a brave and courageous thing for The Mail to do.” That week we published for the first time, the devastating pictures and dialogue from a secretly filmed police video of the suspects, which horrifically revealed their racism, violence and use of knives. These had never been published before because of legal restraints. Their impact was devastating. Three days later, the Prime Minister, John Major, backed The Mail and on March the 6th, the fax machine outside my office came to life with a letter from the Attorney General, saying he had decided, after Lord Donaldson’s intervention, that there were NO contempt of court implications for The Mail. But the most heart warming thing about those heady, heady days was the reaction of The Mail readers. The days our phones went into meltdown with their calls and, God bless them, there was not one dissenting voice till the last one, the supported our position. It was I believe a highly significant moment. The first time that many people in Britain, realised that Black readers were as important to The Mail as white ones. To this day, I am absolutely delighted that we have Black and Asian readers.

Of course, that headline, while hugely significant, was only the first step. The next few months, our campaign moved into overdrive. In June, the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, ordered a judicial inquiry into the Lawrence case to be conducted by Sir William MacPherson. Jack, whom I’d known at University, told me it was The Mail’s coverage that persuaded him of the necessity of this move. In September 1997, we carried a major story saying that senior officers were desperate for new laws to allow the suspects to be retried for Stephen’s murder. In December, we reported that the police watchdog had found conclusive evidence of appalling detectives, which had allowed Stephen’s killers to escape without justice. In July the next year we disclosed a scandal involving one of the suspects, David Norris, when he was controversially acquitted of attempting to murder another man. In December, we revealed that a draft copy of the MacPherson report declared that the Lawrence murder probe was hampered by racism across virtually all ranks. The first indication of the devastating conclusion of institutional racism, which would be unveiled in his final report. In January 1999, another front page exclusive, we revealed how not a single police officer would be disciplined over the botched investigation. The following day, under the headline “The Untouchables”, we named and shamed the officers who had been responsible for the shambles and revealed how urgent reforms of disciplinary rules were being demanded by the police watchdog.

Throughout The Mail campaign, we highlighted the need for Britain’s ancient ‘double jeopardy’ law, which prevented an individual being charged with the same crime twice, to be reformed. Such a change would allow Stephen’s suspected killers, who had been charged with the family’s private prosecution, to stand trial again if new evidence emerged. The 800 year old rule was finally reformed in 2005 by the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, a man who I’d come to like and respect. Many senior police officers and prosecution officials believed that this momentous change would not have occurred but for the relentlessness of The Mail’s campaign.

So…would I write that headline again? I’d like to think that policing and racial tolerance in Britain have made huge strides in the past years. I always tell people that the secret to editing is to be both bold and cautious. It’s knowing when to be which that’s the problem. That day in February 1997, I think we were bold in a way that I shall be proud of for the rest of my life. We made a difference and it was of considerable benefit to both the Lawrence family and society as a whole. And no-one can take that away from The Mail.”

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