Granada's public service was no public spectacle

When it was first mooted that the five suspects in the Stephen Lawrence murder wanted to be interviewed on television and that Martin Bashir would be the inquisitor, I supported those who said the project should go ahead, and made that clear in this column in September last year.

Then I gave short shrift to those who said that such an interview would offer a platform to those tearaways. I know of no broadcaster who would tamper with the Stephen Lawrence issue so as to reduce interviews with the five suspects to the level of a public spectacle. Parliament, the people, the executive, the press would be too much opposition for that channel to bear.

Yet when the programme was scheduled, Neville Lawrence and his advisers attacked it as a "publicity stunt". In public issues the protagonists, in this case the Lawrences and their advisers, should always be aware of the level of power they wield at any given time. Any miscalculation can lead to public embarrassment. After all its brouhaha about publicity stunts, the Lawrence campaign had to eat its words.

Clearly Granada TV and Bashir brought to the interviews a great deal of respect, even reverence. Too much, I thought - but I have been told that they were nervous of the Lawrence campaign. And it showed on screen, but more of that later.

I thought the entire project, and I don't know what lies on the cutting-room floor, was public service broadcasting at its best. The programme, and the remarkable inquisitorial skills of Martin Bashir, made it absolutely clear that these "rogues and rascals", as they called themselves, had much to conceal. Bashir established that they were in the vicinity of the murder, that they made war with the blade and that they were liars, at best. The boys were obviously coached and kept repeating the same phrases: "That is your opinion", "I may have done this or that", "I cannot remember after such a long time": theirs was a chorus of evasion.

But there were moments of dissatisfaction. At times, before and after the commercial breaks, Trevor McDonald made claims for the interviews that were not manifested on screen. For instance, he stated that it was the first time David Norris had admitted where he was on the evening of the murder. He did nothing of the sort. He said simply that his mother had racked her brains and the only place he could possibly have been was at his girlfriend's. Nothing definite there.

To test Norris's alibi, Bashir needed to go into details about his presence at his girlfriend's that evening. Where did he sit? Was she alone in the house? Did he have anything to eat? And myriad other details. As it was, the youth had an escape hatch: this was his mother's recollection, not his own.

McDonald also claimed that there were conflicts of evidence between the accounts of the five. These were minor and insignificant, and McDonald tended to inflate their import. After five years, a judge would impress upon a jury, there are bound to be these conflicts.

Moreover, Bashir did not even come close to painting a picture of the social type to which the five belonged. Where did these young men come from? What was their background? We know that, generally speaking, youths like these tend to live in the outer suburbs, marginalised by the way they speak, the clothes they wear, their priorities. I have been on the road for quite a while on a televisual journey for Channel 4. I have found white working-class women who have supped from the cup of feminism, leaving these louts trapped in machismo on the sidelines. The women more and more are to be found with black men and white counterparts who abjure the backward, knife-wielding, sexually harassing posse. But Bashir did not cast any light on this world.

Still, flaws and all, this was a brilliant effort - and welcomed by the police for producing nuggets of evidence.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 19 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Prepare for a brave new world