Sunday 26 March 2017

Case struck a chord with Fleet Street

The media

Ian Burrell and Paul Peachey

It is no exaggeration to say that the media's coverage of the Stephen Lawrence murder was transformational, forcing an unprecedented examination of the issue of race in British society.

Yet, the morning after Stephen's murder in Eltham, south-east London, on the night of April 22, 1993, the tragedy made only local news.

Fleet Street took a while to throw off its old instincts. When political protesters linked the Lawrence murder and other racial attacks to the presence of right-wing extremists, the newspaper giants on Fleet Street turned on the demonstrators -- such as militant black group Panther UK, who congregated outside the BNP national headquarters in nearby Welling.

One paper ran an editorial: "Racism is abominable; but is there not also something contemptible about professional protesters who capitalise on grief to fuel confrontation?"

Yet whereas other murder victims such as Rolan Adams, who was stabbed to death less than two miles away, were largely ignored, the Lawrence case somehow struck a chord with the press.

Brian Cathcart, author of 'The Case of Stephen Lawrence', said there was something straightforward about the killing which appealed to the media. "You could actually prove that Stephen was not a gangster," he said.

"This was a clean-living, honest young man with ambitions, coming from a well-ordered and law-abiding home. There weren't any defensive excuses that the white establishment could make for his death or the failure to investigate it."

Nelson Mandela forced the media to push the issue when he spoke about the case and the apparent cheap value of black lives in Britain.

But the real change in coverage came in February 1997 when one paper cleared its front page to print pictures of the five suspects, under the headline, "Murderers".

The "Murderers" headline set the scene for the announcement, five months later, of the Macpherson Inquiry, which highlighted the issue of "institutional racism" within the Metropolitan Police. (© Independent News Service)

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