By Jo Manby
24 years ago this week Stephen Lawrence was stabbed to death at the age of 18 by a gang of white youths, in an unprovoked racist attack at a bus stop in Eltham, south east London. The date was April 22nd 1993. Two of his killers, Gary Dobson and David Norris, were only convicted (for life) in January 2012 for their part in the attack.
The same year, founding director of the AIU Centre, Louis Kushnick, began to collect press cuttings, mainly from the broadsheet newspapers, reporting on the case. As part of my job at the Centre I was responsible for archiving the collection.
This is the first of two posts that focus on how the campaign for justice for Stephen Lawrence developed, as wave after wave of headlines were generated that variously named and shamed members of the Metropolitan Police and the criminal justice system who were guilty of institutional racism; asked difficult questions (‘Should Black people join the police?’); and declaimed the brutality of Stephen Lawrence’s attackers (‘Fighting Mad: The Lawrence Five – suspect denies knowing father “bribed witnesses and nobbled juror” in attempted murder trial’).
I asked Lou about why the collection he amassed was so important:
This was another racist attack leading to a death and exposes institutional racism in the criminal justice system. Thanks to the courage and determination of Doreen and Neville Lawrence a widespread campaign continued to demand justice for Stephen. The importance of the campaign is incalculable.
Threaded through the chronologically-archived cuttings are several themes that the press kept returning to. Very early cuttings include an article from the Independent on Sunday 2 May 1993 with the headline ‘Black and white unite in grief’, reporting, with a photograph, on a racially mixed group protest at Stephen’s killing. The cuttings generally fall into the following subsections (although the collection database runs chronologically, it is possible to search using keywords):
- The Metropolitan Police
- The Lawrence family
- The MacPherson Report
- The community
- The perpetrators
- The criminal justice system
The Metropolitan Police
In 1997 the report on the police handling of the Stephen Lawrence case issued by the Police Complaints Authority was published by the Home Office. The report found officers guilty of neglect of duty while involved in the case. One headline reads: ‘Lawrence case detectives “Lost crucial hours”’. Another, from March 1998 reads ‘Murder case police racist: Inquiry into killing of black teenager Stephen Lawrence told arrest could have been made within days’. Two months later the inquiry is still being analysed – the Observer upbraids Sir Paul Condon, Commissioner of the Met: ‘He’s horribly incompetent (better than horribly racist): how the force failed Stephen – catalogue of errors’. In June, Paul Condon ‘makes unprecedented apology to Lawrences’. In July, he ‘decides not to resign’, a decision explained in an October 1998 headline, ‘Condon: “White victims would have suffered same fate” – fresh calls for Sir Paul Condon’s resignation as he refuses to accept racism played a part in failures of police investigation.’
The Lawrence family
The cuttings are mainly from the broadsheets – The Independent, The Guardian, The Observer, and a few from The Times. There are also a few notable exceptions. One of these is a photocopied letter from 1995, only datable by the fact that the correspondents, the Lawrence family, tell us that they are writing on ‘the eve of an historic legal challenge’ – to mount their own private criminal prosecution. This was the official campaign – The Price for Justice, seeking the help and support of sympathetic organisations and individuals. This copy of the campaign letter is addressed by hand to: ‘Dear friends at GMIAU’ on Stephen Lawrence Family Campaign headed notepaper.
The broadsheets often returned to the family as the subject of lead articles. ‘Lost dreams of an unspent life’ described the case from the family’s point of view in April 1996; in March 1998, ‘The Anger and Anguish of Mrs Lawrence’ and ‘Father lost faith in murder police’.
I asked Lou about the role of the press in the Stephen Lawrence case, specifically if he thought that they had behaved altruistically in supporting the family’s campaign: “The press was important but contradictory; Stephen was a perfect victim because he was from a respectable family and was going on to University to become an architect. Many other victims have been ignored because they lacked those characteristics.”
The Macpherson Report
In cuttings from February 1999, the month that the Macpherson Report was published, the broadsheets unanimously responded by publishing comments from experts, politicians and community leaders. The Independent of 25 February ran comments from Prime Minister Tony Blair; Trevor Phillips, Trustee of the Runnymede Trust; The Rt. Reverend Tom Butler, Bishop of Southwark, whose diocese covers Eltham where Stephen Lawrence died; and Inspector Paul Wilson of the Black Police Association, among others. The report made 70 recommendations concerning mainly police handling of race relations and advocating a sharp rise in Black and Asian recruitment to the force. The press cuttings include coverage listing the recommendations and drawing down a range of opinions and analysis.
The second post will cover the reaction of the community, the perpetrators and the criminal justice system.
The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry: Report of an Inquiry, Sir William Macpherson of Cluny, London, 1999, Stationary Office is available at Moss Side Powerhouse Library and the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre library (CR.4.01/MAC, for reference only).
The Stephen Lawrence Press Cuttings Archive Collection is available to view by appointment.