The End of the Mail’s Useful Legend?Doreen Lawrence Accuses the Daily Mail of Spying on Her
The case may shatter the Mail’s claims about its role in achieving justice for Stephen Lawrence, writes Brian Cathcart
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The news that Baroness Doreen Lawrence is suing the publishers of the Daily Mail for misuse of private information is a milestone in the story of one of the UK’s most infamous murders – and in the history of the country’s most powerful newspaper.
It was famously the Mail that, 25 years ago, published its ‘MURDERERS’ front page, accusing five young men of killing Stephen Lawrence even though no court had convicted them. It caused a sensation.
Ever since, through the many twists and turns of the case, Stephen’s mother and the newspaper have appeared to maintain a relationship that was at best cordial and at least frostily neutral – despite the Mail’s toxic record of racism over those years.
It was as if a truce existed between them. Even when the Mail exaggerated its own role in her son’s case, she did not complain.
Maybe there was no truce, but there is no doubt about the relationship now: it is war.
A woman famous for her determination against the odds, she has accused the Mail of spying on her, and the Mail is the most explosively litigious news publisher in the country. As the Duchess of Sussex case showed, it is prepared to spend almost infinite sums and to stoop to extraordinary journalistic depths to defend its reputation.
Declaration of interest: I am chair of Byline Investigates, which, with its sister site Expose News, has been exposing illegal and unethical conduct by UK newspapers for years, and whose revelations help underpin these new claims agains the Mail.
Baroness Lawrence is suing Associated Newspapers alongside six others: Prince Harry, Elton John, David Furnish, Sadie Frost, Liz Hurley and Sir Simon Hughes. The details of their claim are unlikely to emerge for several weeks, but the case is one of ‘misuse of private information’ and is likely to cover such activities as stealing private data, bugging of homes and cars and phone hacking. Private investigators are likely to have been involved.
It is bad enough for the Mail to be forced by such people to defend itself in relation to activities it has always ardently – if not always convincingly – denied. But it is so much worse to be accused by Baroness Lawrence, because the Stephen Lawrence case is central to the paper’s self-image.
When two men who had both been among the five named in the front page were finally jailed for the murder in 2012, former editor Paul Dacre and his paper launched into an orgy of self-congratulation.
Dacre declared: “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that if it hadn’t been for the Mail’s headline in 1997… and our years of campaigning, none of this would have happened: Britain’s police might not have undergone the huge internal reform that was so necessary; race relations might not have taken the significant step forward that they have; and an 18-year-old A-level student who dreamed of being an architect would have been denied justice.”
None of this withstands scrutiny: after the famous front page, which probably did make some difference, the Mail was always lukewarm in its support for the Lawrences; it argued against establishing what became the Macpherson Inquiry and did its best to obstruct the implementation of that inquiry’s police reform recommendation. As for securing justice for Stephen Lawrence, it never unearthed a shred of evidence to help secure convictions.
But the legend that Mail journalism made the difference is a key element of the paper’s self-image. Whenever anyone accuses the paper of racism, it can point to that legend, and that can both confuse its accusers and reassure its supporters. A truly racist paper, so the story goes, would never have supported the Lawrences.
But that support was always more bluster than reality. And now Baroness Lawrence is saying that even as it boasted of its connection with her, it was subjecting her to journalism’s dark arts. Never again, I predict, will the Daily Mail assert, as it once did, that its campaigning in the Lawrence case “did more to improve race relations in this country than anything The Guardian has achieved”.
Brian Cathcart is the author of ‘The Case of Stephen Lawrence’