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Saturday, February 13, 1999 Published at 10:35 GMT


Why Stephen?

Stephen Lawrence, probably the most famous black person in Britain

By Patrick Younge, executive producer of Why Stephen?

I doubt there is a single person in Britain who has not heard the name Stephen Lawrence. The 18-year-old black student stabbed to death in an unprovoked racist attack is probably the most famous black person in the country.

Watch Charles Wheeler report on the role of the media
His face and his case have been front page news for most of the last year and have been the subject of television documentaries and features in international magazines like Newsweek.

But how many people have heard of Rolan Adams, who was stabbed to death by a gang of white youths in 1991, within two miles of the place where Stephen Lawrence was murdered?

Or the case of Quddus Ali, a 17-year-old student, who spent 10 weeks in a coma and is now permanently disabled after being set upon by a gang of white youths whilst on his way home from a video shop?

[ image: Cathcart:
Cathcart: "Horrible purity about the murder"
Why did their cases, and hundreds more like them, fail to get the attention that Stephen Lawrence's case has attracted?

According to the journalist Brian Cathcart, who is writing a book on the Lawrence case, one reason is the particular circumstances of Stephens death.

"There's a horrible purity about the murder of Stephen Lawrence. We know that he didn't know his killers. We know that there was no provocation. We know the words were used "What What Nigger". So it can be established beyond any doubt that this was an unprovoked racist attack. There aren't many other cases like that."

Indeed although police subsequent police handling of the case has attracted much criticism, the one thing they got right from the start was officially defining Stephen's murder as 'unprovoked' and 'racially motivated'.

An undeserving victim

One impact of this was to cast Stephen Lawrence as an undeserving victim, in a way others like Rolan Adams were denied.

[ image: Adams: Police said murder was the result of territorial dispute]
Adams: Police said murder was the result of territorial dispute
The police said the Rolan Adams murder was the result of a territorial dispute, meaning a fight between rival gangs. To Rolan's father, Richard Adams, this downgraded the murder of his son by suggesting the victim was partly to blame.

He said: "From when I heard the police were portraying it as territorial, as a gang fight, I knew justice would be a problem. Because it was definitely racist, the perpetrators were known in that area for doing exactly the same as they had done to my son."

For the campaigners supporting the Lawrence family however, the way Stephen's death was categorised gave them the opening they needed to build public sympathy for the case.

The black-led pressure group, the Anti Racist Alliance (ARA), were now able to 'sell' Stephen Lawrence to the white public in an unprecedented way.

[ image: Stephen's parents were churchgoers]
Stephen's parents were churchgoers
According to Mark Wadsworth from the ARA, they drew particular attention to Stephen's educational achievements, his lack of a criminal record, his middle class ambitions of becoming an architect, the fact his parents were church goers and that the family had white neighbours.

"We were saying Stephen Lawrence was like you to white society. He may have been a different colour but he was hard-working, and he was doing well at school . He wanted to be an architect. He wanted to be a decent citizen."

Image-making campaign

According to Mr Wadsworth whereas previous black campaigns had been aggressive and left many white people feel defensive, this was an image white people felt comfortable as it played heavily on the values of Middle England.

"There was no exploitation of Stephen as a case or an image but it just so happened that there were factors that made this much more easy to promote the issue of racist murders. The image making was never overt.

"In some ways it was subliminal and in that sense it was most effective because it played on the value systems of news desks and politicians and the public in middle-England."

[ image: Daily Mail's decision to name the murderers was unprecedented]
Daily Mail's decision to name the murderers was unprecedented
It was this image-making campaign that prepared the ground for such widespread public support for the Lawrences' five-year struggle for justice. And it is in that context the unprecedented decision of the Daily Mail newspaper to name the five key suspects as murderers in a front page banner headline must be viewed.

According to Brian Cathcart it was a decision driven more by the values of Middle England than a heightened sense of racial justice on the part of the Daily Mail.

"The Mail was prompted into the famous murderers front page by the behaviour of 5 white boys in a white courtroom, in front of a white coroner.

"When they said in answer to the question 'what is your name?' 'I claim privilege ... I claim the right to remain silent', which they said over and over again under questioning from Michael Mansfield. The Mail, a conservative paper saw the British legal system being reduced to mockery and they became angry. Anger is their stock in trade. The 'Murderers' front page was their response."

[ image: A blameless and acceptable black victim?]
A blameless and acceptable black victim?
These are some of the factors behind why Stephen Lawrence's death led to a public inquiry which many people expect will shake the policing of Britain to its foundations. But it is worth asking if this would have happened if Stephen had been a rastafarian, if he had had a criminal record, if he had been a muslim or if his parents had been inarticulate.

The Stephen Lawrence case has not just highlighted the inadequacies of our police force. It also raises questions about the media and about how blameless and acceptable a black victim has to be if white society is to take an interest.

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