Daily Mail editor in chief Paul Dacre is one of the longest serving and most influential people in the press. He is also notoriously reclusive. In the wake of the Stephen Lawrence murder trial verdict, however, he could not contain himself. On the day that Dobson and Norris were convicted, the paper’s website included a 12-minute interview in which Dacre boldly declared, “Quite simply, I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that if it hadn’t been for the Mail’s headline in 1997 ‘Murderers: The Mail accuses these men of killing’ – and our years of campaigning, none of this would have happened.”
That front page story after the racist gang, which included Dobson and Norris, appeared at the inquest into Stephen’s death was undoubtedly momentous. Doreen Lawrence has spoken openly about the “small satisfaction” she felt when she saw that headline. Moreover, the exclusive interview that she gave to the paper after the trial verdict is clearly indicative of the lasting relationship that the paper has established with her.
It is, however, disingenuous of Dacre to claim that the Stephen Lawrence Family Campaign would have petered out if his paper had not ridden heroically to its rescue. The “Murderers” story appeared in February 1997, almost four years after Stephen was killed. For much of the intervening period the mainstream press, including the Daily Mail, were openly hostile and suspicious of a family that so vocally criticised the police.
Newspapers such as the Daily Mail owned by the rich and powerful are hugely influential. In a much quoted passage from his thesis The German Ideology Karl Marx argued that the ruling ideas in society are the ideas of the ruling class. Those ideas are inculcated via the bosses’ ownership and control of the press and media and their domination of schools and universities. The craven sycophancy with which successive prime ministers have bowed to the demands of media baron Rupert Murdoch are well known. Meanwhile education secretary Michael Gove is determined to give big business more control of schools through his academies programme.
Racism has always been a key feature of ruling class ideology under capitalism. Doreen Lawrence herself noted that the Daily Mail is “a newspaper with a long history of hostility to immigrants”.
Unfortunately for the ruling class, however, workers do not simply believe everything they read in the papers. They also learn and absorb the lessons of their own experiences. The history of immigration, particularly since the Second World War, has created a degree of integration in working class communities which has broken down many of the worst racist myths. This has come about because black and white workers have come together in the same factories, depots and offices. Their children have gone to the same schools and colleges and, increasingly, have formed friendships and families together.
In those weeks, months and years that followed Stephen’s murder, working class people across Britain identified with the Lawrence family for one very simple reason. They realised that they too were just ordinary, decent people being denied justice because of racism.
What emerged from this was a level of concrete support which defies the notion that white workers are irretrievably racist or that black and white workers have divergent interests. People from all backgrounds signed petitions demanding justice for the family and raised awareness in their local communities, churches, college campuses and workplaces.
In October 1993, 60,000 people marched in Welling to expose the role of the Nazi British National Party in fomenting racism in the area where the teenager was murdered. Stephen’s parents were, and still are, frequently invited by teachers to speak about their campaign in schools. Trade unionists passed resolutions in their branches and took the matter to their national unions and the TUC conferences. Neville Lawrence, Stephen’s father, moved the TUC when he spoke at its conference in 1993. As a result of all of this the TUC passed a resolution which pledged to underwrite the Stephen Lawrence Family Campaign.
It was, first and foremost, not just the much vaunted “dignity” but also the sheer guts and dogged determination of the Lawrence family that led eventually to the small modicum of justice that they have received. No single individual or organisation should seek to exploit the family and claim undue credit for leading the justice campaign. The family always remained firmly and rightly in control. At the same time, however, the role of ordinary black and white working class people in sustaining the campaign should not be underestimated.
Doreen and Neville were just two ordinary people who became extraordinary as a result of tragic events. It is a measure of them that they have not just fought for justice, but have also given so much back. Without hesitation Doreen wrote the foreword to the book Tell It Like It Is – How Our Schools Fail Black Children and backed its subsequent campaign. She now supports young people at the centre named after her son through the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust.
When he presented his report in February 1999, Macpherson admitted that he reached his landmark conclusion that the police and other public bodies were “institutionally racist” because of the “weight of opinion” he heard during the course of the inquiry. In other words, it was because of the vivid testimony of those black and white activists and campaigners who persistently contradicted the complacent assertions made by the Metropolitan Police and other pillars of the state. Macpherson also declared that Stephen’s great legacy was that he had given the country a chance to change. He was right – in the aftermath of the inquiry we witnessed some positive changes.
Racism cannot be reformed away, however. It is, quite simply, too important to the ruling class. Today Cameron’s attacks on multiculturalism, the demonisation of Muslims and the scapegoating of “benefit tourists” are an indication of how this government intends to use racism to try and divide the working class in order to drive through its austerity programme.
The post-Macpherson impetus for change did not last long. In the aftermath of 9/11 then prime minister Tony Blair declared that “the rules of the game have changed”. The exponential rise in stop and searches, the growth of Islamophobia, the level of school exclusions, the criminalisation and incarceration of black people and the number of deaths in custody are a reminder of how little has changed.
If the coalition government pushes through its proposals things will get worse, not just for black people, but for the entire working class. We have already seen how viciously the courts have dealt with those individuals picked off following the student demonstrations, the TUC march and the August riots. The finest examples of black and white unity were witnessed during the Lawrence family’s long struggle for justice. We have a common interest in reviving and cementing such activity in the battles to come.
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