Doreen Lawrence explained it. Yesterday was not a day for celebration at the guilty verdicts for David Norris and Gary Dobson for killing her son. There is some sense of justice in the conviction of these two racist murderers, but Stephen Lawrence remains dead, and others who took part in his killing still walk the streets.
Against that tone of sombre reflection came the rather jarring triumphalism of the Daily Mail, delighted in yesterday’s verdicts and calling it “The Mail‘s Victory”. The Mail did more than many other newspapers to fight for the Lawrences and to uncover the truth, but there seemed a slight edge to their coverage, as if it was vindication of the famous MURDERERS splash after all these years. I am not so sure it was.
Back in 1997, the Mail labelled the five suspects as murderers — “if we are wrong, let them sue us”, the front page said. It’s been analysed to death down the years, but for me, I still don’t see it as a journalistic triumph, as courageous, as brave, or all those other things people say it was. For me, it’s the same kind of attitude that has seen people’s lives wrecked since — the certainty of guilt leading to false accusations. But I think most journalists disagree with me.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the MURDERERS front page, the Mail has every right to be pleased with its efforts to help in giving the case maximum publicity. But there was something about the coverage that seemed slightly at odds with the reality of the day. The more I saw the Lawrences, still broken people after all these years, the more strange the video statement from Mail editor Paul Dacre seemed in comparison. There was a whiff of myth-making, of history being written. It was the Daily Mail wot won it. Without that front page, there wouldn’t have been justice for the Lawrences.
That’s how the story goes, but is it right? I don’t know and I don’t think anyone knows. It’s certainly an inviting narrative to buy into for those of us who believe in the power of journalism or the tabloid newspaper as a force for fairness rather than unfairness. But as much as I would like it to be true, I think it’s only part of the story. It’s simple to look back and see the front page, then attribute everything that came afterwards to it, but maybe it was just a factor, rather than the defining factor.
There were many, many other people who did everything in their power to keep the Lawrence case at the top of the political agenda. It is perhaps somewhat disrespectful to them to imagine that one newspaper front page was worth more than all of their tireless efforts over 18 years.
So let’s return to the Lawrences themselves, ordinary people who have been forced through horrific circumstances to put their grief into the public domain, to share those private thoughts of losing a son. The key to understanding the impact of that crime is in their words and deeds. Yes, two men are in jail, but as Doreen and Neville Lawrence said yesterday, that does not mean the end — other perpetrators of that disgusting crime still walk free.
There’s no right or wrong way to deal with grief, but despite all the setbacks, the stench of corruption and the seemingly hopeless task, the Lawrences never gave up. Never. They only cared about achieving justice, which could and would never bring back their son, but which could bring some kind of peace. No, it is not a time for celebration: Stephen Lawrence is still in a grave rather than being the man he should have been. But perhaps there is hope, after all.