Murder file

Television

With drama-documentary an all but banned form at the BBC - producers needing the blessing of all the main participants - ITV has taken over the public service duty to deliver cases of social injustice to a mass audience. In The Murder of Stephen Lawrence (ITV, Thursday, 9pm), even more effectively than in Jimmy McGovern's Hillsborough two years ago, Granada used the highest production values to compel us to stay with an evening that promised to fill us with, at best, anger and, at worst, the deepest gloom.

Having painfully taken us to the pavement where Stephen was attacked and the hospital room in which he died, Paul Greengrass's rewarding two-hour drama followed the initially sluggish but increasingly frenetic pace of the various inquiries into his murder. Initially, off camera, as knives were wiped clean and witnesses silenced, nothing seemed to happen. Stephen's mother, Doreen, scolded her daughter that eyewitnesses do not materialise overnight - although overnight was exactly when they should have been sought. But the further from 22 April 1993 we moved, the more furious the action and our reaction became. Finally, mercifully, Greengrass allowed us the false catharsis of the inquest that determined Stephen was killed "in an unprovoked racist attack by five white youths". Mrs Lawrence sat silently, presumably hearing in the jury's verdict nothing more dramatic than a statement of the obvious.

This was a heroically unhistrionic production: no incidental music, dialogue so naturalistic it seemed improvised; camerawork that thought it was cinema verite if it was anything, never once drew attention to itself. Even Jamaica, where Stephen was buried, looked as lachrymose and autumnal as Wimbledon Common. The result was that Stephen and his friend, Duwayne Brooks, emerged as boisterous but likeable teenagers, not models in a liberal pieta. The performances of Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Oscar-nominated for Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies) as Doreen and Hugh Quarshie (heart-throb from A Respectable Trade) as her husband Neville quickly reached a level beyond mere praise. When Mr Lawrence discovered he could find no peace by staying in Jamaica either, we saw his sheepish return to his family's temporary home in London. His surviving children delight in his arrival, yet his pride in his daughter's school grades and his fumbled attempt to kiss his own wife were almost too much to bear.

Little sympathy was wasted on the police. At the early stages of their botched inquiry they smugly told the Lawrences they had "a lot of experience with these situations": "We've been doing this for many years now and you can trust us." They could not, obviously, "discuss operational issues" with them. When the Crown Prosecution Service declined to send to trial the suspects they had tardily rounded up, Commissioner Paul Condon invited the family into Scotland Yard, where his deputy was so anxious they should "have sight" of the internal whitewash that he sat between them like Val Doonican Meets the Kids to read aloud choice extracts. As Paul "Racism-is-something-I-don't-tolerate-I-have-no-time-for-it" Condon, David Calder spoke his self-exculpating lines in the way policemen and bad newscasters do, emphasising the wrong prepositions in an attempt to convey sincerity.

The real culprits were Neil and Jamie Acourt, Gary Dobson, David Norris and Luke Knight, but such white trash rarely make it on to television, partly because the racism in which they exult is itself untransmittable. Yet we need to see them, not least because they represent in extremis an aspect of Englishness that our nation's jokey xenophobia half- tolerates. On the analytical Why Stephen? (BBC2) Ros Howells of the Lawrence campaign was having none of our excuses. Stephen, she told Charles Wheeler, was killed by Englishmen, there being, so far as she knew, no such race as Thug.

Wheeler was asking not why Stephen died but why the nation (even unto ratings-obsessed ITV) cared. There had been no comparable fuss when Rolan Adams was murdered in south London in 1991 at the age of 15, or afterwards when two Asians were permanently disabled in racist attacks in Tower Hamlets. He concluded that the Lawrence campaign had found a way under the skin of the white media by emphasising the "respectability" (ie, similarity to whiteness) of the Lawrences, by gaining the support of the universally admired Nelson Mandela (the Adams campaigners had unwisely shipped in Al Sharpton), and by the invention of sound-bites such as "The Racist Murder Capital of Britain".

Even then, one theory went, the Daily Mail really got angry only when the five suspects put ten fingers up to the white legal system by refusing to answer questions at the inquest. Indeed, the editor of The Voice, Annie Stuart, called the Mail's campaign against the five boys "very dangerous". She warned that the headline "Murderers!" could be next used against unconvicted black suspects. On one level she is right. The informal lynch law which has sanctioned the media's turning on the Eltham Krays is disreputable. It is not, however, as disreputable as it would be were we to leave this terrible story untold.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London "Evening Standard"

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, We are richer than you think