Hacked Off founder Brian Cathcart has accused Culture Secretary Matt Hancock of falsely crediting the Daily Mail with helping to bring Stephen Lawrence’s killers to justice.
Lawrence was killed in a racially motivated attack in south east London in April 1993. Four years later, after failed criminal prosecutions, an inquest recorded a verdict of “unlawful killing” by five suspects.
On 14 February 1997, the day after the verdict, the Daily Mail published a front page in which it names the five men it says killed Lawrence with the headline “Murderers” and invited them to sue the paper if they are wrong.
The front page is widely seen as having put pressure on authorities to act, leading to the Macpherson Inquiry into the police investigation into Lawrence’s murder.
It was not until nearly 20 years after Lawrence’s death that two men were found guilty of his murder and jailed for life.
Cathcart, a professor of journalism at Kingston University, has spent the past year going through the Daily Mail’s coverage of the Lawrence murder case to challenge its repeated claim that it launched a “now-celebrated campaign” to bring Lawrence’s killers to justice.
The claim has been much repeated elsewhere. Hancock said on Monday at the Oxford Media Convention: “Journalists helped bring Stephen Lawrence’s killers to justice.”
However, he did not directly attribute the victory to the Daily Mail.
Speaking at an event in central London yesterday, Cathcart said Hancock’s statement was “important because he makes policy and he is making some quite important policies at the moment”.
He referenced the Government’s decision not to continue the Leveson Inquiry into the culture of the press and its pledge to repeal Section 40 cost sanctions legislation that would force newspapers not signed up to a Royal Charter regulator to pay both sides’ legal fees in a court battle, win or lose.
Hacked Off supports Leveson Two and the enforcement of Section 40.
Cathcart said: “[Hancock] is saying this because it’s useful to him – it’s useful to his case. He wants to show how great the national press is, how much we have to value it, how much we have to protect it.
“This is important – it needs to be scrutinised and we need to decide whether Matt Hancock should be saying this kind of thing at all.”
Cathcart described the claim as a “political lever being used to manipulate us all in the culture wars that surround our press” and a “gross disservice” to the Lawrence family.
In response, the Daily Mail has said it remains “proud” of its 20-year campaign regarding the case.
A spokesperson for the newspaper said Cathcart was an “embittered failed journalist” and raised concerns over Hacked Off’s funding.
The Mail spokesperson said: “The Mail is proud of its 20-year campaign to secure justice for Stephen Lawrence, which has been acclaimed by successive Prime Ministers, Yard Commissioners, Home Secretaries, Doreen and Neville Lawrence – and indeed Cathcart himself in his own 1999 book, the Case of Stephen Lawrence.”
Cathcart said that although the “Murderers” front page caused a sensation and “undoubtedly” raised the profile of the case, the Mail has since gone “far beyond” what is realistic in its claims and that he is therefore seeking accuracy and due proportion.
He said he began looking into the Mail’s continued claims after it declared all-out war on the Guardian in June last year in an editorial and said its campaign to bring Lawrence’s killers to justice “did more to improve race relations in this country than anything the Guardian has ever achieved”.
Cathcart yesterday challenged the Mail’s assertion that its editors could have risked jail over the front page, saying you cannot be jailed for libel in the UK, that no editor has ever been jailed for contempt and that proceedings were not even active at the time of publication.
Mail editor Paul Dacre claimed in 2012 its “momentous” campaign had been credited with overturning double jeopardy laws that stopped people from being tried for the same crime twice.
Cathcart said: “There was no campaign. I have been combing back over it.”
Cathcart also claimed the Mail “never once” called for a public inquiry into the Stephen Lawrence case, despite its assertion there would have been no Macpherson Inquiry “but for the Mail”.
He said: “It didn’t believe there was a case for a public inquiry. Not only does the Mail not call for an inquiry but it actually tries to weigh in against the kind of inquiry that was called – yet it says there would have been no inquiry but for the Mail. I found it hard to reconcile.”
Dacre also claimed in 2012 that but for the Mail, “an 18-year-old A-level student who dreamed of being an architect would have been denied justice”.
Cathcart challenged this claim, saying the convictions came about due to new forensic evidence and that he could not see a “crumb” of evidence in the prosecution case brought about by the Mail or any other newspaper.
He acknowledged Dacre may have been referring to pressure put onto the police by continued coverage, but said the investigation was simply reopened by a single detective “acting on his own initiative”.
Cathcart said: “Why is it worth challenging this? This is an important story. It’s about the death of a young man, but it’s about this country. It’s about what kind of country it is and the Mail’s intervention in it at least has to be held up to scrutiny. These kinds of claims have to be tested.”
In 2012 the Mail collated 32 stories which it said constituted a “remarkable campaign for justice” over the course of 15 years.
Cathcart urged people to challenge these or similar “brags” from the press, which were repeated during the Leveson Inquiry.
He said: “This is a manipulation we should not be putting up with and the sooner it’s challenged properly [the better] so that at least when they make these claims there are little qualifications here and there.”
The Daily Mail is not the only source for the assertion that it had a key role in securing justice for Stephen Lawrence.
Retired Scotland Yard Detective Chief Inspector Clive Driscoll, who led the successful reinvestigation of the Lawrence case, said: “Without the Daily Mail, I would not have got the convictions of Gary Dobson and David Norris.”
John Grieve, the ex-Scotland Yard deputy assistant commissioner who led a multi-million pound new investigation into Stephen’s murder from 1999 to 2003, said: “Without the Daily Mail, the Stephen Lawrence case would not have got to where it is now. If the paper had not stayed with the agenda of justice for the Lawrences, I don’t think we would have got the public inquiry including the crucial change in the double jeopardy laws.”
Former Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw: said: “The Daily Mail has played an important and honourable role in keeping this case alive in highlighting the need for a full judicial inquiry and keeping public interest in the issue at a time when the suspects no doubt hoped the media interest would wane.
“The Daily Mail’s intervention made my job much easier in getting agreement from the Metropolitan Police to set up the inquiry, which itself changed the face of policing in Britain.”
Doreen Lawrence, Stephen’s mother, said: “When the Mail first published their faces, up until that point nobody – apart from those in their local neighbourhood – really knew what these boys looked like. Then the whole country knew. They were no longer faceless people. That helped and also the part the media played in bringing about the inquiry.”
Former Labour leader Ed Miliband: said “At a time when the reputation of the newspaper industry is at an all-time low, it is important to recognise when campaigning journalism makes a difference.
“That includes the honourable role the Daily Mail has played over almost two decades in helping bring the killers of Stephen Lawrence to justice.
“The murder of Stephen Lawrence was not only a tragedy for a talented young man and his family, it was a wake-up call to all of us who believe Britain is – and always must be – a country where everyone is shown respect irrespective of race, culture or faith.”
Picture: Kingston University