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Trial by TV and tabloid

Last night's BBC documentary The Boys Who Killed Stephen Lawrence showed that this tragic murder has been turned into a morality tale about the oafishness of the white working classes.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

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Even before BBC1 broadcasted The Boys Who Killed Stephen Lawrence last night, the documentary had generated headlines all week. Mark Daly’s 12-month investigation into the murder of the black teenager in London in 1993 promised fresh evidence against the original gang accused. So much so that judging by the title of the film, the BBC – like the Daily Mail before it – has made itself judge and jury in the Stephen Lawrence case. Apparently, as a result of Daly’s detective skills, the Metropolitan Police are said to be investigating allegations of corruption against one of their former officers. All of this might look impressive for the cameras. But would it look impressive in court? And why is the Stephen Lawrence case different from other racist murders where justice still hasn’t been done?

Mark Daly’s findings rested on two things: first, the inconsistency in the alibis of the Acourts and their gang; second, allegations that Scotland Yard officer, John Davidson, accepted case-blocking bribes from Clifford Norris, a relative of one of the gang members. But with key witnesses afraid and unwilling to give evidence in court, it’s hard to see what good Daly’s door-stepping will do. Likewise, pinpointing a specific officer to blame may provide the Metropolitan Police with therapeutic relief, but it wouldn’t be enough to secure convictions for the original crime.

For all the self-congratulatory hype, Daly probably knew all of this. That is probably why so much of his programme was filled with old news footage of the case, as well as the police’s grainy surveillance tapes of the Acourts’ flat. We already knew that the gang are unpleasant, and that they have a track record of vicious attacks. Nevertheless, brandishing knives around and using foul racist language is not an admission of guilt for Stephen Lawrence’s murder. Yet the gang’s silence about the murder on these tapes, and their reluctance to sue the Daily Mail over its ‘Murderers’ headline in 1999, is seen as an implicit admission of guilt. As a dispensation of justice, this is surely the equivalent of a witch’s ducking stool.

Maybe that is appropriate, as the symbolism of the Stephen Lawrence case borders on the medieval, too. In the programme, frequent montages of good Stephen Lawrence (notably sans his half-raised Black Power salute) were juxtaposed against the snarling, evil racists in our midst. For so much of the media, this case has replaced the Moors Murders as a morality tale to be revisited and relearned time and again. But like the comparison between Stephen Lawrence and Anne Frank at an exhibition on Stephen Lawrence’s life, his canonisation only represents a retreat from a rational analysis of the events (1). So what is so special about the Stephen Lawrence case?

By the early Nineties, racially motivated murders against black people weren’t anything new; such horrific attacks had been taking place for many years. In fact, racist murders had dropped from a peak in 1979. But the Stephen Lawrence case was a watershed in British society precisely because of the timing rather than the grisly attack itself. When his murder took place in April 1993, it confirmed for radical left-wingers that ‘something must be done’ about the British National Party’s presence (namely a bookshop) in south east London.

In October that year, the Anti-Nazi League’s demo in Welling called on the authorities and the police to ban far-right organisations and activities, despite the police having a reputation of their own for using violence against black people. ANL leaflets demanded ‘Nazi rats get back to your sewer’ – code for rough white boys on council estates. This appealed to the prejudices of middle-class liberals on demos, and it was positively welcomed by the authorities seeking new connections in society. Within six months of the Welling demo, the BBC had launched a ‘racism awareness’ initiative with billboard posters of New Britain’s new outcast: white working-class men.

At regular intervals, the Stephen Lawrence case is revisited because it has become a way of pillorying the white working classes at large. In The Boys Who Killed Stephen Lawrence, Daly solemnly noted how in early-Nineties Eltham racist graffiti ‘welcomed ethnic minorities’, as if local committees decided upon acts of racist intimidation. At every level, the Lawrence case is designed to draw lines between the respectable middle classes and the oafish white working classes who haven’t unlearned the previous set of rules and adopted the new etiquette. This is why the Daily Mail, a paper that once championed Hitler, was keen to sign its name to the Lawrence cause. Supporting fascist Blackshirts in one era and a black family in another might appear contradictory, but they have both become devices for putting the masses in their place.

Even though the police initially came out of the Lawrence case badly, in the long run it rehabilitated them as crusaders for official ‘anti-racism’. By accepting the report of the Macpherson Inquiry into the Stephen Lawrence case, which said the police were guilty of ‘institutional racism’ (long a criticism of the far left), the police effectively colonised anti-racist campaigns for themselves. Indeed, at the end of The Boys Who Killed Stephen Lawrence, the Metropolitan Police invited the public to come forward regarding the murder case. As with the Anthony Walker murder case in Liverpool last year, the police are now seen as forces for ‘good’, while it’s the white masses that have to show they’re not ‘bad’.

The media circus surrounding the Lawrence case hasn’t been taken at face value by young black Londoners. Three years ago I was teaching at a Further Education college in Hackney, London, and a number of black students were instinctively suspicious about the authorities’ and the media’s motives. One black student believed it only kept racial issues and tensions alive, while another perceptively reckoned it made black people out to be ‘special cases’. Indeed so, for while the authorities’ self-flagellation over Stephen Lawrence might appear as a positive step forward, as writer Paul Gilroy has observed, the presentations of black people as both villains and victims are merely flipsides of the same coin. Far from the Lawrence debate representing racial emancipation, it carries on degraded notions of subjectivity in a new way.

As with previous racist murders in Britain, the killing of Stephen Lawrence was a senseless and heinous crime. Nevertheless, it’s important not to let the emotive issues behind this case blind us to the fact that defendants – no matter how unpleasant – must be proved guilty beyond reasonable doubt. And that means in a court of law rather than on a TV programme. But then, the phenomenon of Stephen Lawrence has gone beyond the actual crime itself. For the political and respectable middle classes, the case has become symbolic of all that is wrong in both old and new British society – the white working classes.

Neil Davenport is a writer and lecturer based in London.

(1) ‘Stephen Lawrence: the Black Diana’, by Andrew Calcutt, Last Magazine, Summer 2000

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