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 You are in: Special Report: 1999: 02/99: Stephen Lawrence  
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EDITIONS
Stephen Lawrence Friday, 19 February, 1999, 18:55 GMT
The media impact
Media coverage of the Stephen Lawrence case has been remarkable from the very start.

Stephen Lawrence case: Timeline of events
That start came with five young white men pictured on the front page of Britain's most conservative paper under the one-word headline "Murderers".

Their alleged crime was the unprovoked racist murder of a young black man. It would have been a bold front page for any newspaper. For the Daily Mail - bastion of true-blue British attitudes - it was truly remarkable.

Stephen was murdered on the night of 22 April 1993. His death made the local papers and the local television and radio news next day. It made the national press on the morning of 24 April, buried for the most part on inside pages.

The Daily Mail's bold front page
And that might have been that. Stephen was not white, blonde or female. There seemed nothing to keep his murder in the news. Yet the story did not go away.

First came the photographs and interviews with Stephen's parents, Neville and Doreen. Then the conservative Daily Express ran an "in-depth" article on racism in London.

Then, remarkably, Nelson Mandela was pictured meeting Stephen's parents, and some of Mandela's own qualities were transferred in the coverage to the couple themselves, who were soon being routinely described as the "stoical", "dignified" and "deeply religious" parents of a "hard-working", "bright" and "ambitious" son.

Crafted campaign

The Lawrences themselves have said they resented much of this as "patronising". But the nature of the coverage was no accident. Within hours of Stephen's murder a newly-formed grouping of anti-racist organisations, the Anti-Racist Alliance, had made contact with the family.

The ARA's Marc Wadsworth, a former television producer, saw an opportunity in their personal tragedy to convey to middle England just how horrible and widespread racism was in parts of Britain.

Two years earlier another black youth had been murdered in the same part of London. Rolan Adams's death too had become the focus of an anti-racist campaign, but the campaign had been partly hijacked by extremists, and ignored by much of the media.

When the fiery and controversial black American preacher and activist, the Rev Al Sharpton, had come to Britain to campaign on Rolan's behalf it was he, not Rolan's family, on whom the media concentrated.

Wadsworth determined to present the Stephen Lawrence case differently, and to break through the indifference of the tabloid press towards black victims of racism - an indifference which he ascribes to "racism in journalism".

Rolan Adams
Rolan Adams: Ignored by the media
Stephen Lawrence, aspiring architect, was portrayed as law-abiding, diligent and respectful. "We were saying to white society, 'Stephen Lawrence was like you'" Wadsworth told Charles Wheeler in an interview for a recent investigation of the Lawrence phenomenon for BBC 2's Black Britain.

The image-making, he said, was not overt, but was highly effective because it played on the value systems of (white) newsdesks, politicians and public.

It certainly had an effect on the Daily Mail - where the ARA was helped by a stroke of good fortune. Neville Lawrence, a plasterer, had done some work at the home of the Mail's editor, Paul Dacre, who thus knew him personally.

But the Mail's "Murderers" front page was prompted by more than an editor's sympathy for someone he knew and liked. The police had bungled their investigation of Stephen's murder and the Crown Prosecution Service advised there was insufficient evidence to convict his suspected killers.

"Trial by media"

A private prosecution brought by the Lawrences collapsed when the judge directed the jury to acquit three of the accused, despite a secretly-shot police video which revealed some of them were aggressive racists. At a subsequent inquest the five suspects had refused to answer questions. The Mail was outraged, at least in part, by the contempt the five had shown for the law.

The paper's front page provoked widely different reactions. Many applauded it for stepping in where the law had manifestly failed. Others were alarmed at such an obvious case of "trial by media" - what, they asked, if the five suspects had been black, not white?

The Nation of Islam
The Mail invited the five to sue for libel. They did not. Eighteen months later they exhibited their customary contempt for due process at Sir William Macpherson's inquiry into the Lawrence affair.

Their arrogant manner and their faces contorted with angeras they were pelted with missiles on leaving - came to symbolise the whole appalling busines just as the blurred family snapshots of Stephen and the portraits of his parents had done earlier.

But the inquiry provided other images for the media to chew over - notably the alarming pictures of the Nation of Islam, black activists in black suits and red bow-ties, who at one stage invaded the inquiry building and fought a running battle with police.

Spotlight on the Met

But it was the police, their bungling in the early days of the investigation, and the stone-walling of some officers under questioning, which provided the main focus for the coverage of the inquiry.

As publication of Sir William's report drew near there were signs that the police were fighting back in the media. Police sources criticised the inquiry for its "McCarthyite" character, saying police officers were forced to give evidence against a backdrop of hostility from the public galleries.

The Met, anxious to show it was tackling the scourge of racism, appointed Deputy Assistant Commissioner John Grieve to head a Scotland Yard race and violent crimes task force. Articulate and liberal, a thinking policeman and something of a real-life Inspector Morse, he was widely profiled.

grieve
John Grieve: Brought in to tackle racism
In the days that followed Stephen's murder, public relations turned a personal tragedy into a cause celebre. Now public relations is once more playing a part in the way the case and its participants are perceived.

But behind the PR there have been real changes. The police have been forced to acknowledge their own shortcomings, and even conservative newspapers and commentators have questioned the racist attitudes of many officers revealed by the Macpherson inquiry.

Most astonishing of all, Britain's tabloids, and the white residents of "middle England" who read them, have woken up to the realities of racism and racist violence.

Links to more Stephen Lawrence stories are at the foot of the page.


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Links to more Stephen Lawrence stories

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