The revelation of corruption at the heart of the Met's investigation must not detract from the main lessons of Stephen's murder
Published in the Evening Standard 27 July 2006
The murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 was probably the most important single killing in this city's living memory. It led to a profound rethinking of policing in London and beyond, but also to a round of soul-searching that affected almost every major institution in Britain. The good ones, at least, looked hard at themselves, wondering if they too were tainted by the disease Sir William Macpherson, in his inquiry into the Lawrence murder, had diagnosed in the Metropolitan police: institutional racism.
The government encouraged this process: they even wanted to name follow-up legislation the Stephen Lawrence Memorial Act (until they were dissuaded by reluctant parliamentary draftsmen). But chief credit for ensuring that we have not forgotten Stephen belongs to his parents, Neville and Doreen, two campaigners who have become the personification of stoic, righteous determination.
Now the BBC has added to that effort, with last night's TV documentary, The Boys Who Killed Stephen Lawrence. Through dogged investigation, carried out over a year, reporter Mark Daly exposed the evidence which might well, at long last, bring Stephen's killers to justice. The programme showed that the suspects' alibis don't add up and that there are new witnesses ready to come forward. That could be sufficient ground for a new murder trial or, failing that, charges of perjury or obstruction of justice.
Daly's key allegation, however, was of police corruption at the heart of the investigation. He argued that Detective Sergeant John Davidson was on the payroll of the notorious gangster Clifford Norris, father of one of the suspects. In return for what Davidson was said to have called a "good little earner," the policeman allegedly protected the Norris family, ensuring that the investigation never got too close.
As if that was not bad enough, the film claimed a cover-up of this cover-up. Detective Constable Neil Putnam wanted to tell the Macpherson inquiry what he knew - but he was never called. He says he offered to talk three separate times, yet his tip was never taken up. That suggests a conspiracy to protect the Met from what would have been an explosive revelation. The sooner these claims get their own investigation the better.
But there is danger here, one that should trouble all those who drew comfort from the Macpherson process and hoped it would lead to a better Met. To understand it, one has to go back to February 1999 and the day the inquiry published its findings.
They were met by praise from both the government and anti-racist campaigners. But others, especially in the right-leaning press, queued up to denounce the Scottish judge. They claimed he had been taken in by lefties, that his branding of the Met as institutionally racist was, in terms that were cliched even then, political correctness gone mad.
It would be tempting now, thanks to the BBC report, to conclude that those critics were right. How ironic, we might say, that after all that fuss, it was not racism that led the Met astray, but plain, old-fashioned corruption. The problem was not some collective mindset that regarded a black life as less valuable than a white one. No, the trouble was much more limited: it came down, at most, to a few bent coppers.
Such an exercise in revisionism would not only affect how we view London's past. It would have a direct impact on London's present. For perhaps the defining mission of Sir Ian Blair's tenure at the top of the Met has been to remedy the ills spotted by Macpherson: rooting out the racists, transforming the diversity of the staff, changing the very mentality of the force. But if Macpherson had wrongly identified the problem, then what need would there be for Blair's painful, and much-opposed, solution?
Drawing such a conclusion from these latest revelations would be tempting indeed. Tempting, but wrong. Yesterday I spoke to Richard Stone, one of the three wise men who advised Sir William. Had the BBC film shaken his faith in the inquiry's findings? Not a bit.
"Our conclusions of institutional racism were robust in themselves, regardless of corruption," he told me. Besides, claims of corruption hardly come as a surprise. The inquiry suspected as much; they just didn't have the evidence to prove it. What was not in doubt was what Stone calls a "collective failure" that went from the bottom to the very top of the Met, which, he insists, could only be explained by the "feeling that they didn't need to bother too much with this case because the family were black."
Yes, Davidson was in charge of three witnesses. But there were plenty of other witnesses who were mishandled, and that was by officers who were (presumably) not corrupt. Nor can corruption explain the conduct of the lead officer on the night of the killing, who literally sent his men in the wrong direction because his starting assumption was that if a young black man was dead, he must have been involved in a fight.
Stone remains clear that the Met had a blind spot when it came to Stephen Lawrence, one that cannot be explained by bribery - and I agree with him. It's important that we hold firm to that conclusion, reached so painfully in 1999. For the problems Macpherson identified persist, and some have got even worse. You are now eight times more likely to be stopped by police in London if you are black or Asian than if you are white. You were four or five times more likely when Macpherson sat nearly eight years ago. Says Stone: "The fact is that [the police] are still doing random stops on black people, including young Muslims, just for the fun of it."
We need to act on the BBC film, chasing Davidson if he is guilty and unearthing corruption wherever it exists. But we should not delude ourselves that it was a few backhanders that denied the Lawrence family justice. It was racism - and we must never forget it.