Fifteen years after the Daily Mail’s famous “Murderers” front page Gary Dobson and David Norris have been found guilty of killing black teenager Stephen Lawrence.
On February 14, 1997, the paper named five young white men, including Dobson and Norris, under the front page headline: ‘Murderers: The Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong, let them sue us.’
Today a jury of four women and eight men found both men guilty of Stephen’s murder following a six-week trial at the Old Bailey.
In a rare video interview, the Mail’s editor Paul Dacre described the guilty verdict as a ‘glorious day for British newspapers’– and admitted his decision to run with the story 15 years ago was ‘outrageous’and ‘unprecedented”.
‘This really is a glorious day for Neville and Doreen Lawrence, who after all the betrayals, injustice and tears, and finally after nearly two decades, have secured justice for Stephen,’he said in a video posted on the Mail’s website after the verdict was announced this afternoon.
‘It’s a glorious day for the police, who after the utter disgrace of the original investigation have through sheer bloody perseverance and brilliant detective work wiped out this blot on the Yard’s history, and showed that British policing at its best is still something to be very proud of.
‘It’s a glorious day for British justice, which shows that while mistakes can be made our judicial system does provide redress for every member of British society whatever their racial background.
‘It’s a glorious day for the politicians, particularly Jack Straw and David Blunkett, who responding to the Mail’s campaign commissioned the Macpherson Inquiry and reformed the centuries-old double jeopardy law, thus allowing the retrial of two of the original suspects after a criminal action, a private prosecution, and an inquest had failed to secure justice for Stephen.
‘And finally, it’s a glorious day for British newspapers, proving that the power of journalism, courageous headlines and relentless campaigning can act as a huge force for good in society and make a major difference to countless lives.
‘Many senior people believe if it hadn’t been for the Mail’s headline in 1997… and our years of campaigning, none of this would have happened.
‘The Daily Mail took a monumental risk with that headline. In many ways it was an outrageous, unprecedented step, but I’d like to think that as a result we did a huge amount of good and made a little bit of history that day.”
Contempt of a ‘cosmic order’
Dacre said the headline had been brewing ‘subconsciously’for weeks and that the paper’s crime reporters had built up a dossier that convinced them of the men’s guilt.
He later spoke with a senior Met officer who told Dacre he would ‘stake his life’on their guilt.
He admitted that the article was ‘contempt [of court] of a cosmic order”, but when one of the backbench team mentioned libel he snapped back: ‘The bastards haven’t got any reputation to lose”.
On the night before the paper was published the mood was ‘electric”, said Dacre, who was shown the ‘Murderers’splash and another alternative.
”Let’s go,’ I said. You can always come and visit me in jail.”
Later that night Dacre said he woke at 4am ‘drenched in sweat and convinced my career was all over”.
In the following weeks and months the paper stepped up its campaign, including publishing pictures and dialogue from police surveillance of Norris and Dobson, which he said had a ‘devastating’impact.
‘A highly significant moment’
Three days later the then Prime Minister John Major backed the Mail and on 6 March Dacre said he received a fax from the Attorney General informing him he had decided there were no contempt of court implications for the Mail.
‘But the most heart-warming thing about those heady, heady days was the reaction of the Mail’s readers,’said Dacre.
‘For days our phones went into meltdown with their calls, and God bless them, there was not one dissenting voice – to the last one they supported our position.
‘It was, I believe, a highly significant moment – the first time that many people in Britain realised that black readers were as important to the Mail as white ones.
‘To this day I’m absolutely delighted that we have so many black and Asian readers.”
In 2005 the Government announced that it was reforming the 800-year-old double-jeopardy law, which meant a person could not be tried for the same crime twice.
‘Many senior police officers and prosecution officials believed that this momentous change would not have occurred but for the relentlessness of the Mail’s campaign,’said Dacre.
He added: ‘I always tell people who ask that the secret to editing is to be both bold and cautious – it’s knowing when to be which that’s the problem.
‘That day in February 1997, I think we were bold in a way that I shall be proud of for the rest of my life.’