The Daily Mail's "Murderers" headline was still wrong
Most civilized nations have the presumption of innocence enshrined in their legal system; you are innocent until proven guilty. It's a concept at least as old as the Romans, and I imagine most of the people I follow on Twitter believe it's a pretty solid foundation for our justice system today. Why then have so many taken to praising the Daily Mail for supposedly 'getting it right' over Stephen Lawrence? (see e.g. https://twitter.com/#!/TomChivers/status/154217723210117121
To say the Mail 'got it right' is beyond generous for a start. The famous "Murderers" headline named five men, of whom two have now been found guilty. Three remain innocent in the eyes of the law. You might think
they did it, maybe they did, maybe some time in the future a further trial with new evidence will confirm it, but for now they remain innocent.
The assertion of people like FleetStreetFox (e.;g. https://twitter.com/#!/fleetstreetfox/status/154257844399648769
) is that the Mail should be vindicated because their campaign led to a good result - the reopening of the case and the eventual conviction of two men. It's a superficially pleasing argument, but falls apart when you realize that what it's essentially saying is a combination of "the stopped clock was right once today, so we should be happy to trust the stopped clock"
and "hey, if the justice system fails the tabloids can do the job."
No, and no.
Firstly, Dacre acted as judge, jury and executioner, declared five men guilty, and merrily risked ruining their lives (not to mention their prospects of a fair trial) on what he concedes was a "gamble". He demanded that they pay large sums of money fighting a powerful media company in the libel courts in order to prove their innocence. That to me is a pretty perverse and unfair form of justice system to fall back on, even if it does produce the odd hit.
Secondly, you can't just point at the wins while studiously ignoring the failures. Two of the five people named by Dacre have been convicted, but it remains possible that three others have been wrongly smeared. And that's just if you count this case. Rebecca Leighton
, a nurse, was cleared of involvement in the deaths of patients, but smeared as an 'angel of death' by tabloids who raked through her Facebook profile obsessed with finding anything that might look incriminating (http://politicisedcorrectly.blogspot.com/2011/09/angel-of-death-but-only-for-tabloid.html
). Chris Jefferies
won six-figure libel damages after taking eight newspapers to court - The Sun, Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror, Daily Record, Daily Mail, Daily Star, The Scotsman and Daily Express - for their demonization of him after the murder of Joanna Yeates (www.guardian.co.uk/media/greenslade/2011/jul/29/joanna-yeates-national-newspapers
This isn't to say that journalists shouldn't pursue these cases - far from it! There was some excellent investigative journalism in the case of Stephen Lawrence, some of it in the Mail, and it's fair to point out that the paper's campaign did much to keep the case alive. Part of good journalism though should be responsibility to the facts and to the basic principles of justice. It was right to campaign, it was right to highlight serious questions about the case and the evidence, but it was not right to declare five people to be murderers without a fair trial.
Like a lynch mob, the tabloids may well spot the occasional Gary Dobson or David Norris, but they are also likely to smear the Chris Jefferies and Rebecca Leighton's of this world. That's precisely why we hold onto idea like the presumption of innocence and fair trials, rather than letting Paul Dacre - or the mob - decide. The legal system is not perfect. Justice will fail from time-to-time, and journalists should challenge and fight to expose those failures, but I don't want to live in a world where tabloid newspapers are allowed to act as a kangeroo court. Cherry-picked positive data points are not going to change my mind.