21 years on, Mail editor Paul Dacre has shared the story behind the newspaper’s infamous ‘MURDERERS’ headline
It is fair to say that the Daily Mail comes in for its fair share of criticism on a daily basis.
Despite its regularly questionable takes on feminism, racism, immigration, Brexit and much more, it is the UK’s second-biggest paid-for newspaper, behind The Sun, with a monthly circulation of around 1.3m.
And this success has undoubtedly been led by the iron grip of its editor Paul Dacre, a man famed for his expletive-laden missives to staff and unyielding belief that he, and he alone, understands the concerns and outlook of the Mail’s target audience: curtain-twitching Middle England. He’s been editor of the Mail since 1992, with few signs that the 69-year-old has any intention of giving up the position he’s held for 26 years any time soon.
However, while a great deal of the criticism is justified, the Mail can occasionally hold its head up high with some of the campaigns that it’s led - and none stand out more than its famous 1997 front page which openly named the accused racist killers of teenager Stephen Lawrence, who was murdered outside a bus stop in south-east London in April 1993.
Following an initial investigation into the murder in 1993, five suspects were arrested but acquitted. Neil Acourt and Luke Knight were both charged with murder, but charges were dropped, with the police citing insufficient evidence.
A subsequent inquest into the death of Lawrence was then held in February 1997 with the five suspects refusing to answer any questions. It concluded on 13 February with the jury returning a verdict, after just 30 minutes, of unlawful killing, with the jury adding, going beyond the bounds of their instructions, that Lawrence was killed “in a completely unprovoked racist attack by five white youths”.
The very next day, the Mail ran an explosive front page where it openly named and pictured the five suspects, labelled them as “Murderers” and adding “If we are wrong, let them sue us.”
In an extremely rare interview, the normally secretive Dacre, has spoken to the BBC - which the Mail attacks on an almost daily basis - for a landmark series marking the 25th anniversary of the murder and made an astonishing relevation.
It transpired that Neville Lawrence, the father of Stephen, had been recommended as a “very good plasterer” and had done “a lot” of plastering work for Dacre when his home had undergone renovation.
He explained, “He did a lot of plastering work. He was clearly a very decent, hard-working man. Would the Mail have done it without that knowledge? Probably not.”
Prior to the Mail’s front page, Neville Lawrence, unaware of who his employer was, had complained about the paper’s coverage. However, Dacre then offered the family a chance to “put the record straight” in an exclusive interview.
Dacre has previously explained that the Mail took a “monumental risk” with the headline, but also said “I would like to think we did a huge amount of good.”
He explains in the interview that he met with Paul Condon, the Met Police commissioner, saying “Paul said he would bet his life these men were the killers but they couldn’t get the evidence. These guys were taking the piss out of British justice.”
He then decided on the “Murderers” headline at 9pm, just 45 minutes before the paper went to press, forcing the “cataclysmic” front page past unconvinced libel lawyers.
Dacre added: “The next day the s-h-i-t hit the fan.”
The unprecedented front page attracted widespread attention, and praise. The Mail took a huge gamble - it would have been potentially liable for enormous libel payouts - but not one of the men named sued for defamation. Public anger grew against those accused and also against the police who handled the case.
Five months later, an inquiry was ordered by Home Secretary Jack Straw, which eventually resulted in the publication of the Macpherson Report, completed in 1999, which recommended that double jeopardy - the ancient common law that once acquitted an accused person could not be tried for the same crime a second time - should be stopped in murder cases, and that it should be possible to subject an acquitted murder suspect to a second trial if “fresh and viable” new evidence later came to light. The recommendations were implemented in the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which came into force in April 2005.
The report also examined the original investigation and reached its infamous conclusion that the Metropolitan Police was institutionally racist.
The Macpherson Report has been called ‘one of the most important moments in the modern history of criminal justice in Britain’, while Jack Straw has said that ordering it was “the single most important decision I made as Home Secretary”.
The Mail repeated its “Murderers” front page on 27 July 2006 and, in January 2012, an element of justice was finally served when two of the original suspects, Gary Dobson and David Norris were found guilty of Lawrence’s murder, following a trial - enabled in light of “new and substantial evidence” - that was only made possible by the Macpherson Report, which had undoubtedly been expediated by the Mail’s famous front page.
And had Neville Lawrence not happened to work for Paul Dacre, it may never have happened.
Following the 2012 convictions, Paul Dacre said:
“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that if it hadn’t been for the Mail’s headline in 1997 —’Murderers: The Mail accuses these men of killing’—and our years of campaigning, none of this would have happened. Britain’s police might not have undergone the huge internal reform that was so necessary. Race relations might not have taken the significant step forward that they have. And an 18-year-old A-Level student who dreamed of being an architect would have been denied justice. The Daily Mail took a monumental risk with that headline. In many ways, it was an outrageous, unprecedented step.”
Stephen: The Murder that Changed a Nation is on BBC1, Tuesday April 17, 9pm, continuing April 18, 19
(Images: Getty/Daily Mail)