‘Contempt of a cosmic order’: legal risk of the Daily Mail’s 1997 “Murderers” front page

This morning, the Daily Mail was unusually willing to name check its rival titles, including the Independent, the Times, the Guardian and the Financial Times, for applauding the paper’s bold 1997 ‘Murderers’ headline (below left), which accused five men of killing Stephen Lawrence.

In a video and article for the Daily Mail, editor-in-chief Paul Dacre has described some of the legal considerations he and his in-house lawyer made before publishing that dramatic statement about Stephen Lawrence’s alleged killers in 1997.

It was about 8 o’clock. I reached for a layout pad. This was in the days before on-screen make-up and I literally wrote down with a thick pencil the words “Murderers” and underneath it the sub-deck: “The Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong, let them sue us“.

I showed it to the senior sub-editors. There was a kind of nervous laughter but then contempt of court is drilled into every newspaper executive’s thinking. And this was contempt of a cosmic order.

They obviously thought I was mad. Someone muttered libel and I remember snapping – “The bastards haven’t got any reputation to lose”.

It was now that Eddie Young, the Mail’s lawyer and one of the shrewdest men I’ve ever met, became involved. To his eternal credit, he was unfazed by the headline.

He reinforced my feeling that the five had very little reputation to defend as is required in a libel case. Some had records and came from notorious criminal families with long histories of appalling violence.

Yes, if it went to court, the Mail would have to establish that the men murdered Stephen Lawrence, but since it would be a civil case, we would only have to prove that it was probable that they had done so, which we were confident could be done.

I, Eddie and my deputy retired to my room to rehearse the arguments. The mood, surprisingly, was very calm. Clearly, there were many powerful reasons against the headline. But there wasn’t one over-riding reason NOT to do it.

Dacre then describes the mixed legal and media reaction:

… the proverbial hit the fan. The whole media went into meltdown. TV carried our front pages but with the suspects’ pictures pixelated.

The Telegraph declared I should be jailed and carried a cartoon of me flicking ink at the Old Bailey’s scales of justice. For days, the story dominated the TV and radio news shows and even made international headlines.

The former Master of the Rolls, Lord Donaldson, pronounced his surprise and horror at the front page and accused me of contempt of court.

But other distinguished lawyers supported us, as did Doreen Lawrence who said the front page was “wonderful”. Her local MP, Peter Bottomley, and Frances Lawrence, the widow of murdered headmaster Philip Lawrence, also weighed in on our side.

But perhaps the thing that thrilled me most was the intervention of a hero of mine, Britain’s greatest judge, Lord Denning, who congratulated the Mail on “a marvellous piece of journalism”, adding “it was a brave and courageous thing for the Mail to do”.

That week we published, for the first time, the devastating pictures and dialogue from a secretly filmed police video of the suspects which horrifically revealed their racism, violence and use of knives. These had never been published before because of legal restraints.

Three days later, the Prime Minister, John Major, backed the Mail. And on March 6th the fax machine in the room outside my office came to life with a letter from the Attorney General saying he had decided, after Lord Donaldson’s intervention, that there were no contempt of court implications for the Mail.

Fifteen years later, the Mail’s front page announcing the conviction of Gary Dobson and David Norris (above right) for Lawrence’s murder repeats the 1997 one-word headline, adding “now what about the other three…”?

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2 Responses to ‘Contempt of a cosmic order’: legal risk of the Daily Mail’s 1997 “Murderers” front page

  1. David Banks says:

    But, and I might be getting my timelines in a twist here, there were no active proceedings against any of the men at the time of the Murderers headline were there?

    There had been an unsuccessful private prosecution and the ‘active’ period for the purposes of the CCA 1981 ended when the prosecution was dropped.

    No active warrants out – no outstanding charges. So where is the contempt risk.

    Even if one wanted to go for an old-fashioned common law contempt prosecution you would need proceedings ‘pending or imminent’ – and none were. The prosecution would also need to prove intent in a common law action (unlike statutory contempt, which is a stricty liability offence)

    So I’m unclear as to where the cosmic order lies? And the same goes for now – no warrants are out, no-one outside those convicted has been arrested or charged, no information has been laid. So, no contempt risk for now.

  2. Pingback: Law and Media Round Up – 9 January 2012 « Inforrm's Blog

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