Corrupt police and Stephen Lawrence: it's time to sit up and take notice
Friday 7 March, 2014
Sometimes papers can try to be just that bit too clever.
The Stephen Lawrence story has been an outrage from the word go and we're all running out of words to describe our distaste at each new disclosure. Yesterday Theresa May told MPs that the Guardian was right when it reported last June that police had spied on the Lawrence family when they were supposed to be hunting for his killers.
Her announcement of a new inquiry was delivered in potent language. Jack Straw, who as Home Secretary, ordered the MacPherson inquiry, responded by describing it as the most shocking statement he had heard in the Commons. In the Lords, Doreen Lawrence was, as usual, articulate and dignified as she visibly struggled with her emotions. Her former husband's television interview was heart-rending.
For the papers this morning, there were two ways to go: play it straight - as the Guardian and i did - or try to find a telling phrase that would still resonate after all the horrors we have heard before.
The Telegraph came closest by going with Lady Lawrence's words. It just needed a touch of 'my family' in there to make it clear where this was coming from - even with her picture (again the right choice) there to help. The Times also went for a quote, and again it doesn't quite come off because we don't know who's saying it, and the single line heading isn't strong enough.
The Mail and the Independent misfired. The Mail had allowed just the right amount of space in its splash heading to have used a longer quote from Lady Lawrence or Ms May. Instead, it fell into the trap of pushing its own opinion - no matter that most of us share it. We don't need to be told that this is sickening. We know. The Independent gets it even more wrong with a tiny picture of Stephen and a rambling 30pt resumé of events so far, including a little puff for itself.
The biggest surprise about the story was how restrained the coverage was overall. Yes, there were spreads on inside pages, but for the Guardian to devote as much front-page space to a boxer dog as it did to Lawrence seems extraordinary.
Of the papers that didn't splash on the inquiry, the Mirror put it on page 2 - with a Lady Lawrence picture and quote heading, the Star had a single column on its 4-5 Max Clifford spread, and the Sun made it the page 13 lead.
The Express ran it as a small double column page lead on 28, behind, among other things, a centre spread on it doling out free poppy seeds to mark the centenary of the first world war, the showbiz spread with Cameron Diaz telling us she had to work for fame, four columnists and the puzzles page.
The Express may think that its readers don't care much about dead black teenagers, but don't we all care about police who spy on victims' families, collude with criminals, and lie to outside authorities? Would they not be alarmed that repeated disclosures and attempts to clean up the Metropolitan Police have still failed? Or do they think "we've seen it all before".
Yes we have: the Times tapes of officers taking bribes in 1969, exposing a scandal likened to "finding the Archbishop of Canterbury in bed with a prostitute"; the Operation Countryman corruption investigations that followed; Sir Robert Mark's "mission" to clean out the rotten apples; the Flying Squad chief on holiday with a criminal...
And so it went on through the 80s and the 90s, a force denounced as institutionally racist; a force that tolerated remand prisoners being beaten and kicked and even killed in custody; a force that failed to take complaints of rape or sexual abuse seriously.
And even in a new century, a force that failed to investigate allegations of phone hacking; a force that backed officers who lied to stitch up a government minister it didn't like.
We should all care.