Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre has said he trusted his instincts over the newspaper’s now famous “Murderers” front page naming the five men accused of killing teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1997.
However, Dacre admitted he would “probably not” have run the contentious splash if he had not personally known the murdered youth’s father, who did plastering work on his house.
Lawrence was stabbed to death by a gang of white men in a racially-motivated attack in April 1993 in south east London.
Four years later, after failed attempts to prosecute the suspects, an inquest was held in which they refused to answer any questions, repeatedly saying: “On my solicitor’s advice, I exercise my right to remain silent.”
The coroner recorded a verdict of “unlawful killing” on 13 February 1997 and, that night, Dacre made the decision to publish what he called a “pretty cataclysmic” front page for the following day’s edition.
Speaking to the BBC for its Stephen: The Murder that Changed a Nation documentary, which aired last night, Dacre explained that he had had lunch that day with Sir Paul Conlon, then Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, and the Lawrence case came up.
He said: “I remember him saying that he’d bet his life the five suspects were as guilty as sin.
“The tragedy was the police couldn’t get the evidence necessary, the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] wouldn’t back them in a prosecution. But he was absolutely certain they were guilty.”
Dacre said he “thought nothing more of it” but when he saw the Nine O’Clock News that night, images of the five suspects at the inquest were shown.
“These guys were taking the piss out of British justice,” he said, explaining why he made the last-minute decision to change the front page.
He said he picked up a layout pad, wrote and underlined the word “murderers” and added the now famous sub-deck: “The Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong, let them sue us.”
Below were the photos and names of the five suspects – two of which, Gary Dobson and David Norris, were since convicted and jailed for life in 2012.
Revealing the reaction in the newsroom, Dacre said: “There was a kind of deathly silence on the back bench, some nervous titters, someone joked: ‘What about libel?’.
Dacre admitted libel was a risk, but added: “Bear in mind this was now about 9.10pm and if you haven’t worked on newspapers you don’t understand the sheer tyranny of the clock to get that last page to the printers by 9.45pm.”
Dacre said he discussed his proposed front page with a lawyer at 9.10pm and then had a 20-minute conversation with his deputy about it, describing the atmosphere as a “huge tension”.
“We were doing something pretty cataclysmic,” he said. “But you trust your instincts, you go with what you believe is right.”
However, Dacre said he may not have felt the same if he had not previously met Neville Lawrence, Stephen’s father.
He said: “Yes I’m a human being, I knew the man, he was clearly a very decent, very hard-working man. Would the Mail have still done that headline without that knowledge? Probably not.”
The next morning, Dacre said, the “s-h-i-t hit the fan” as critics accused the paper of interfering with justice.
Imran Khan, who was representing the Lawrence family, had mixed feelings about the splash, telling the BBC: “It’s a national newspaper, read by millions, read by politicians. It’s arrived into the houses [of people] that have never understood or experienced racism.
“I can’t deny that there was a mischievous grin on my face when that was said, but also a sense of unease.”
Michael Mansfield QC, also on the legal team, was less favourable.
“Strictly speaking as a lawyer I found that difficult,” he said. “The day in which we live in a society when the Daily Mail adjudicates on guilt or innocence I think is a sad day.”
But Doreen Lawrence, Stephen’s mother, credited the Mail with making people understand the miscarriage of justice she believed had taken place.
“What the coroner’s court has done is to prove that Stephen was murdered unprovoked,” she said at the time. “And what the press have done is highlight that even more so and make it come home to people.”
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.
Jack Straw, Home Secretary between 1997 and 2001, told the BBC that the Mail’s splash had helped him push for the inquiry to be set up.
He said: “That helped to change the politics of this quite dramatically because by virtue of the fact it was the Mail and not a left-ish paper, it made space for me to then push for an inquiry.”