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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