Paul Dacre is quoted in the ‘i’ newspaper today as saying that he would ‘probably not’ have published the famous Daily Mail ‘Murderers’ front page about the Stephen Lawrence case had he not once employed Stephen’s father as a plasterer.
If the report is accurate, Dacre’s latest account is strikingly at odds with the evidence he gave on this very point to the Leveson Inquiry in 2012. On that occasion, speaking under oath, he ridiculed the very idea, described it as ‘uncharitable’ and ‘insulting’, and said he was disappointed even to be asked about it.
Confusion about the Mail’s record in the Lawrence case is nothing new. I recently examined a series of claims made by the paper over the years and found they had been at best considerably exaggerated and were in need of significant qualification.
The paper cannot seriously claim, for example, that it brought about the public inquiry into the murder. Nor did it campaign relentlessly for the reform of the double jeopardy rule, a change that made possible the successful prosecution of one of the murderers. Nor can it plausibly claim that but for its journalism no one would have been convicted of the crime. Read the full analysis here.
On the question of Dacre’s personal knowledge of Neville Lawrence, it has long been known that soon after the notorious race murder in 1993 a Mail reporter visited the bereaved parents in southeast London and, becoming aware that Mr Lawrence had done building work for his editor, put the two men in touch.
According to today’s ‘i’, previewing a forthcoming BBC documentary about the case, this connection was still in Dacre’s mind nearly four years later when he decided to devote the Mail’s front page to accusing the five suspects in the case of murder. The quotation from Dacre is this:
’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.’
Compare this with the following exchange from Dacre’s testimony to the Leveson Inquiry on 6 February 2012.
Robert Jay QC (for the Inquiry): ‘It’s been suggested by some that the reason for the Daily Mail siding with the Lawrence family was the fact that Mr Neville Lawrence did plastering work in your home several years previously. Some would say that’s very uncharitable suggestion, but I offer it up for comment by you.’
Dacre: ‘Well, it is an uncharitable suggestion. I mean, are you really telling me that I would risk going to jail, I would risk destroying my career, I would put my proprietor and my paper in that position, and that I couldn’t take a principled stand against something I felt very strongly about, and that was only because this man, at some stage many years previously, had done some plastering work for me? I really do find that insulting and it’s with more sorrow than anger that I respond to it.’
These appear to be almost opposite views, expressed by the same man. From the historical record it is not possible to say with certainty which is accurate, but some light can be shed on the matter.
According to Nick Davies in his book Flat Earth News (page 373), after Dacre and Neville Lawrence spoke on the phone in 1993 the Mail reporter received a message from his news desk to ‘do something sympathetic’. In practice this instruction can have made little difference, since at the time what the Mail wanted from the Lawrence parents was something they were keen to deliver: criticism of what they regarded as extreme groups that they believed were attempting to take advantage of their campaign. That was the thrust of the Mail interview published soon afterwards.
If Dacre’s knowledge of, and apparent esteem for, Neville Lawrence had any impact on the paper’s reporting in the four years that followed, there is no sign of it. These were very difficult years for the family, which experienced rebuffs from the police, the prosecuting authorities, the courts and the government. Their complaints about official racism fell on deaf ears, as did their calls for a public inquiry. In this period the Mail’s reporting was no more sympathetic than any other paper’s, nor did it give the story greater prominence.
Whether Dacre had Neville Lawrence in mind all this time (as is implied in the remarks quoted in the ‘i’), or whether that idea is preposterous (as he maintained under oath at the Leveson Inquiry), it is plain from the record that the Mail gave no special help to the family.
(Incidentally, Dacre’s remark at the inquiry that he risked jail by publishing the famous front page is another claim that does not stand up to scrutiny. See the analysis.)