The Daily Mail’s initial coverage of the Stephen Lawrence murder

A lot of rumours and half-truths have been buzzing around Twitter and comment threads about how the Daily Mail initially reported the Stephen Lawrence case, and why Paul Dacre allegedly changed from being hostile towards it to one of its biggest champions.

In 1997 The Observer and Guardian newspapers covered the Daily Mail’s famous ‘Murderers’ headline in some detail and commented on the fact that the headline marked a significant departure from the Mail’s coverage of the murder up until that point. A Guardian editorial published on the 15 Feb 1997 comments:

Cynics can also point to a very belated conversion by the Mail. Until yesterday, the Mail’s coverage of the shameful killing had been somewhat peripheral. The murder was only mentioned in three stories in the last year before the inquest, only six the previous year, and just 20 since the murder was committed. Moreover, compare yesterday’s leader with the paper’s editorial shortly after the murder which, while hoping the guilty would be caught, was quick to sneer at the supporters campaigning for the Lawrence family: “What is not helpful is the gusto with which the more militant of the anti-racist organisations have hijacked this human tragedy. The black African leader Nelson Mandela was enlisted, while on a visit here, to give publicity to the case. Racism is abominable . . . but is there not also something contemptible about professional protesters who capitalise on grief to fuel confrontation?”

The Daily Mail editorial quoted by the Guardian above seems very ironic given the role of the Daily Mail in becoming the ‘professional protester’, giving publicity to the case through the ‘Murderers’ headline and in particular Paul Dacre’s grandstanding video ‘interview’ on the Mail website which was also published in full in the Mail’s print edition. An edition which was a virtual commemorative Stephen Lawrence edition – followed up with exclusive interviews with both parents of Stephen Lawrence.

Things could have perhaps turned out very differently according to an Observer article printed on the 16 Feb 1997 titled: ‘Hostile Mail changed tack on Lawrence justice campaign’. The article gives the full details of the incident that has been doing the rounds in various forms on Twitter / comment threads:

THE Daily Mail, the newspaper which last week named as ‘murderers’ the five white youths linked to the killing of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, was originally hostile to the campaign to bring his killers to justice…

the reporter dispatched to cover the story last night told the Observer that the Mail changed its editorial line to support the close family of Stephen Lawrence when it emerged that Stephen’s father had once worked as a plasterer and decorator for Paul Dacre, the paper’s editor.

When the newspaper first covered the story in 1993, Hal Austin said he was ‘detailed’ to write a ‘knocking’ story about the Lawrence campaign, which it believed was orchestrated by a ‘rent-a-mob’, did not have the family’s approval and which it condemned in a fierce leader…

In May 1993, shortly after Stephen’s murder at a bus stop in Eltham, south-east London, the paper sent Mr Austin, a black reporter, to interview his parents, Neville and Doreen.

Stephen’s murder had ignited passions in the area. On the previous Saturday, 19 people, including five policemen, had been injured in street protests. Several rival political and anti-racist groups had contacted the Lawrences to offer their support.

The initial Mail approach was to treat the ‘campaign’ with hostility. Mr Austin, who no longer works for the Mail, said yesterday: ‘I was detailed to write a story knocking the campaign.’

During the interview with the family, Mr Lawrence asked what would appear and made inquiries about the Mail editor. He asked if he was a tall, balding man with a house in Islington. It emerged he had worked for Mr Dacre some 10 years previously. Mr Austin advised the dead boy’s father to contact Mr Dacre directly. It is understood that there was a phone call to Mr Dacre at about this time.

‘The following day my instructions were suddenly changed,’ Mr Austin said. ‘I was told by the news desk to forget the previous instructions and that they now wanted a positive story.’ Mr Austin felt the original approach undermined the family’s case because it implied that their grievances were not to be taken seriously.

Furthermore, the Observer article also comments on the Mail not normally being sympathetic to the black victims of crime, quoting the example of:

One black journalist who wrote for the paper about a sexual assault on a Tube train [who had] recently found her photograph replaced in the paper by one posed by a white, blonde model.

The Observer article also quoted another Mail ex-staffer’s cynicism of the Mail’s sudden change of heart:

‘It’s not an ethical position, it’s just expediency. I’m disappointed how many astute people are falling for it,’… ‘The Mail has a cast-iron agenda and it’s not suddenly going to get a social conscience. It’s a one-off, a personal thing. The Mail wouldn’t really care if all British blacks were pushed off the cliffs of Dover.’

It has been widely reported in the past few days that the Mail was initially hostile to the campaign that was building up around the Stephen Lawrence murder, and that Dacre supposedly changed his heart thanks to his fleeting personal connection with Stephen Lawrence’s father. However, I just wanted to clarify just what was reported at the time to correct a few versions of events that I have seen being spread, and to highlight in more detail the version of events as given by Hal Austin – a name which I hadn’t heard connected to the story before.

I also wanted to give the details from the 1997 Guardian editorial which points out not just the initial hostility of the Daily Mail towards the Lawrence story, but also how little coverage the newspaper gave the story until that headline in 1997.

Given the evidence above a cynic might suggest that Paul Dacre was more upset by the mocking, uncouth and sweary attitude of the 5 alleged murderers towards the British justice system than the initial murder of a black teenager.

5 thoughts on “The Daily Mail’s initial coverage of the Stephen Lawrence murder

  1. Interesting, I’m sure I’ve heard the story about Dacre changing his mind on a story because someone involved had done some work for him previously.

    If I recall correctly, I think it was written about in Nick Davies’ book Flat Earth News, but I don’t remember the story relating to the Stephen Lawrence murder. Unfortunately I don’t have my copy of the book on me, so I can’t check this.

  2. Isn’t putting the pictures of 5 suspects on the front page under the headline “Murderers” damaging to their chances of a fair trial? Surely that is contempt of court whether or not they were later found guilty.

  3. Chris – it seems to be in Scotland, unless the accused fit some very specific criteria… which these guys don’t. I don’t know if it’s an offence of any sort under English law.

  4. As usual Kevin, brilliantly researched article.

    Martin, the story given in Flat Earth News was about the Lawrence murder, along with many many examples of Daily Mail reporters being turned down for stories because the victims in them weren’t, as Dacre put it, “one of us”.

Comments are closed.