Three days after the start of the Stephen Lawrence trial the Spectator published an article which apparently had the potential to undermine it. I have to be careful here because this matter could see the magazine, its editor, and journalist Rod Liddle face trial for Contempt of Court.
But it is a matter of public record that the piece was considered problematic enough for trial judge Justice Treacy to interrupt proceedings on 7 November in order to ask the jurors whether or not they had read it. When they said they had not, he ordered them to avoid it and referred the matter to Attorney General Dominic Grieve. The issue is currently being considered by the Director of Public Prosecutions.
The Lawrence trial was one of the most hotly anticipated in recent legal history, but news organisations had up until then been acutely careful about publishing material which could prejudice it in the run up to proceedings.
Yet, with the trial actually in progress – when the risk of prejudice was at its peak – this article appeared, just three days in.
Any student journalist more than a few weeks into their study of media law would be able to see that the Liddle piece rings some fairly major alarm bells. The contentious elements in it speak for themselves.
In particular it is worth noting that Liddle referred to the accused as “violent, often criminal, certainly unpleasant white trash”. He stated that they were were racists and also included details not known to the jurors of Norris’s previous convictions and criminal links.
The piece opened: “I wonder what would happen if I wrote an article for this magazine saying that Gary Dobson and David Norris had nothing to do with the stabbing to death of the black youngster Stephen Lawrence 18 years ago? And that they are entirely innocent? The two are in court at this moment charged with the murder of Lawrence, and therefore I would be in contempt of court…
“Courts rightly take such matters very seriously, but it would be a singularly perverse judge who took action against me: for the last 18 years the public has been assured that all five of the men originally named as suspects, including Dobson and Norris, are absolutely guilty, bang to rights. And reminded of the fact every so often.”
Liddle went on to say: “Will Dobson and Norris – the son of a drug dealer himself, as it happens; at least two of the five men and probably three have familial connects to fairly big-time sarf lunnun thick-as-mince gangsters – get a fair hearing, do you suppose?
“Nope, not a chance. About eight years ago Neil Acourt and David Norris were charged with throwing an empty drink carton in the direction of a policeman. They were sentenced to 18 months each in prison – no other charges, that’s all it was. I think they received that sentence on account of not being banged up for the murder of Stephen Lawrence, not for throwing a drink carton at a copper…
“Should we care about these undoubtedly violent, often criminal, certainly unpleaseant white trash? That they were (and probably still are) racists is quite beyond dispute. Maybe, these days, that’s enough to convince the rest of us that where legal rights are concerned, they simply do not have any.”