Next April will be the 25th anniversary of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, an occasion for remembrance and for reflection on race and tolerance and on what lessons have been learned. It will also, precedent strongly indicates, be a moment when the Daily Mail reminds us about its role in the case. But what exactly was that role? What did the Mail do, and what difference did it make?
The newspaper itself has made bold claims. That it brought about the setting up of a public inquiry in 1997 – the Macpherson Inquiry. That it caused the reform of the ancient double jeopardy rule, which prevented anyone being tried twice for the same offence – so paving the way for the retrial of one of the two men since convicted of the crime. That it helped bring about reforms to the police and lasting improvements in race relations. And without the Mail, the paper says, there would have been no justice in the case.
I published a book about the Stephen Lawrence murder in 1999 and I have returned to the subject to test the Mail's claims against the historical record for an article now published in the journal Political Quarterly. I found that in most cases the Mail considerably exaggerated its contribution and in some cases there was no supporting evidence at all.
For example, any suggestion that the Mail's actions prompted the Macpherson Inquiry needs to be heavily qualified, since the paper never called for a public inquiry and actually opposed one of the kind that was established. Similarly, in the case of double jeopardy the Mail did not, as it asserts, campaign ‘relentlessly' for reform. In the four-year period when the change was under consideration it published just one editorial that unequivocally advocated it – nothing like a Mail campaign of the kind with which we are familiar.
As for the paper ensuring that ultimately Stephen Lawrence was not ‘denied justice', as it has put it, that too is difficult to sustain. The two convictions in 2012 were secured thanks to breakthroughs with the forensic evidence – something with which the Mail was not involved in any way. And it can't be argued that the police only acted under public pressure from the Mail since the known narrative does not support that – the investigation was reopened by a single senior detective acting on his own initiative.
None of this means that the Mail did nothing in the Lawrence case. Everybody who is old enough will remember the February 1997 ‘Murderers' front page that openly accused five men of the killing and defied them to sue. It caused a sensation and undoubtedly raised the profile of the case. That and the subsequent Mail coverage probably helped a great many white British people to connect with the case who might not otherwise have done so. These are positive contributions.
But the Mail has gone far beyond what is realistic in its claims and, with an important anniversary approaching, accuracy and due proportion are needed.