Dacre's strident defence of 'outrageous' Lawrence front page should be a warning to Leveson

The convictions today of Gary Dobson and David Norris for the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence 18 years  ago have prompted Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre to mount a strident defence of the risk-taking tabloid journalism that helped bring about the verdict.

It may not be a coincidence that Dacre’s words come at a time when tabloid journalism is in the dock at the Leveson Inquiry and facing the threat of tough new regulation.

The February 1997 “MURDERERS” front page would never have been run by a broadsheet or ‘quality’ newspaper, or in broadcast form by the BBC for that matter.

Only a tabloid editor with the finely-tuned risk-taking instincts that job needs would dare take such a monumental gamble.

The rare video interview of Dacre which the Mail has posted online today feels like a broadside against some of the anti-tabloid sentiment which has been gaining traction at Leveson in recent weeks.

Dacre had been Mail editor for five years when he the took decision to publish that front page – a headline which he says had been brewing in his head for some weeks.

It was an unprecedented move which he admits could have been construed as a contempt of court of monumental proportions. It could have destroyed Dacre’s career, potentially put him in prison and even put him at personal risk – the five Lawrence murder suspects were known to associate with some very dangerous people indeed.

They had been charged with no crime – yet the Mail appointed itself judge and jury for them.

Yet today, 15 years on, who would argue that Dacre did not do the right thing? Sometimes editors get these gambles wrong, and the result – as in the case of Chris Jefferies last year – can be a massive libel payout to the wronged party.

But in this case, when the risk-taking paid off, it helped prompt a wholesale review of British policing and – as Dacre notes – a shift in Britain’s attitude to race relations.

And, as Dacre also says, it was a decision which was certainly not taken lightly – but only after months of investigation and the revelation from a senior police source to Dacre himself that he would stake his life on the mens’ guilt.

Without the Mail’s dogged championing of the case, would there have been the political will for the Met Police to go to lengths it has done to nail Stephen’s killer and atone for its past failings?

I am sure Lord Justice Leveson will watch Dacre’s defence of what he admits was an outrageous piece of tabloid journalism. And I hope he will bear it in mind when he makes his recommendations about the future of the press later this year.

In particular, he Leveson should be careful about backing the idea that the ‘victims’ of the press should have the automatic right to be notified in advance of publication. It is easy to imagine that, with a story such as the ‘Murderers’ front, any pre-publication legal challenge would have tied it up for months. Even if it were allowed, the impact would have been lost.

Leveson has to find a way to protect risk-taking journalism which sometimes sticks two fingers to the establishment in order to push the boundaries tell it as it is, as the Mail did in this case.

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