The sight of Britain’s newspapers ganging up together to protect
press freedom and the right to publish portions of the Lawrence inquiry
leaked to the Sunday Telegraph has been pretty unedifying. It’s even
succeeded in making me feel a bit sorry for Home Secretary Jack Straw, a
decent man, although daft in his attempt to bolt the stable door after
the nag had fled.
But the larger truth is that newspapers have jumped on to the Lawrence
bandwagon in a manner which shrieks, not of deliberate debate of the
report’s recommendations, but of a crude witch hunt of Condon, spurred
on by a vicious circulation war.
Have they thought hard about the issue of endemic racism, or indeed
about tackling their own blind spots in daily coverage - or non-coverage
- of racial issues? I suspect not. The Lawrence case creates an obvious
win/win situation - true justice may be impossible but we’re all safe in
wanting to make amends.
The truth is that every editor and marketing director bitterly regrets
the way their papers failed to spot the editorial and circulation
potential in Lawrence’s murder six years ago.
One told me last week that his team are envious of the brave, calculated
way the Daily Mail under editor Paul Dacre, forced the whole incident on
to the front pages in 1997. He has been rewarded by seeing it mushroom
into a major crisis of confidence in policing standards.
John Witherow, editor of the Sunday Times, caused quite a stir among his
staff and competitors this month when he told the Guardian’s media
section that he regretted the way his paper had failed to land certain
big stories. Although he didn’t name the Lawrence story, the fact is
that in its great campaigning period under Harry Evans 25 years ago
Insight would have been on to it like a shot.
My suspicion is that the nationals have been so keen to expand
readership among the unconverted that they have concentrated too much
firepower on the softer lifestyle features. The Guardian, which has just
opened up the genetically modified food debate alongside the Mail are
the honourable exceptions.
The Daily Mail is a hard paper to compete against. Why? Because it can
land a knockout blow with its left while tickling the fancy of its
readers with its right. Before the failed Government injunction this
week, Saturday’s Daily Mail carried a historic front page, in which it
repeated the original allegations naming the five suspected men.
Turn to page three, second most important in the paper, and you find
that it is devoted to a huge picture story on the ’giant poinsettia that
won’t stop growing’. That’s why its sales are up 4.5 per cent in a year.