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18 February 1997

Trial by Media

The Daily Mail newspaper has caused a stir after naming those it thinks are guilty of the racist murder of student Stephen Lawrence four years ago. Daniel Lloyd, from Freedom and Law, has no problems with campaigning journalism but is not so sure that the evidence justifies the Mail's claims

The Daily Mail, so long the object of hate for Guardian readers, has all of a sudden become a darling of those on the centre left. Their defamatory article naming the five 'murderers' of Stephen Lawrence - killed four years ago in a racist attack - has become a celebrated example of fearless journalism at its best. But is it worthy of such praise from such unlikely quarters?

What is so fearless about accusing five white working class youths from Eltham of the murder of Stephen Lawrence? It's laughable in the extreme to challenge, as the Mail does, those young men to start libel proceedings against them if they feel they have been unjustly accused. It is nothing more than an empty taunt. The legal fees alone prevent anyone not appearing in the annual Sunday Times Fortune magazine from starting libel proceedings. To hide behind the libel laws and loudly condemn the 'murderers' of Stephen Lawrence is not an act of courage but an act of cowardice.

If the Mail seriously believes in the allegations it made, then it should at the very least give those named a right of reply, devoting as many column inches to their side of the story as to the allegations made against them. Anything less and the Mail's commitment to free speech and fearless journalism is nothing more than laughable.

However their commitment to trial by media cannot be doubted. Former Master of the Rolls, Lord Justice Donaldson condemned the lynch mob mentality of the Mail as seriously prejudicial to any future civil proceedings. Just because the victim happens to be black doesn't excuse or justify the Guardian and their well meaning friends joining in with the lynch mob.

Perhaps it is good that the Mail has named the men and revealed the evidence. Now we can make up our own minds. However, while what the Mail has done is not wrong in principle, in this instance it is not something we can support. While it is entirely valid for newspapers or anybody else to criticise the legal system, the current criticisms stem from anti-democratic, elitist impulses rather than a positive desire for real justice. It is one thing for a newspaper to protest about a miscarriage of justice when there really has been one - like when the Birmingham Six were convicted on no evidence. It is another thing when justice is done and people are let off where there is no evidence, What we have seen so far suggests that justice in this instance has not failed - in fact we could say it has succeeded.

These five white youths have been on trial at the Old Bailey and had the case against them thrown out, principally on the basis that much of the evidence against them was purely circumstantial. The now infamous video footage of their racist gibberings is a good illustration. Nowhere amidst the hours of surveillance tape of the five accused do any of them confess to the murder of Lawrence. The evidence was therefore grossly prejudicial without being probative of anything that actually happened that fateful night. To have these five young men convicted on that basis would have been the greatest miscarriage of justice of all. In that sense the 'system' worked in that these five men were acquitted due to a lack of evidence.

The parents of Stephen Lawrence have every right to pursue civil proceedings against these young men and are by all accounts intending to do so. But to pre judge these young men before these issues have been fully adjudicated upon is not what justice should be about.

The gauntlet thrown down by the Mail to these young men to issue libel proceedings against them, should be seen for what it is. An empty taunt and open abuse of their position of power and influence. What chance do these young men have to clear their names when trial by media effectively prevents their point of view from being put across. Libel laws are used by the rich to silence their critics. The Mail should put up or shut up. Either interview the young men concerned and debate all the issues in the public domain or publish an immediate retraction.

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