Bill Carmichael: Best and worst of a tragic case

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THE Stephen Lawrence case illustrates some of the best and worst things about Britain. The worst is that isolated pockets of virulent racism still exist; the best is that the vast majority of people of all races were appalled and disgusted that a teenager could be murdered simply because of the colour of his skin.

The worst was that the police hopelessly bungled the initial investigation into the stabbing; the best is that since those early blunders detectives patiently built a compelling case to put before a jury and secure the convictions of two of the attackers. Also among the best is the role played by the popular press – newspapers helped keep the case in the public eye and the Daily Mail in particular was courageous when it named those it claimed were responsible for the murder and dared them to sue for libel.

It is worth emphasising the public good newspapers can achieve because British journalism is under more pressure and scrutiny than at any time for many years.

Various politicians and celebrities have trotted along to the Leveson inquiry into press ethics to denounce tabloid excesses.

And there is a serious danger that new restrictions of freedom of expression will be imposed as a result of the illegal activity of a tiny minority of reporters.

This would be a serious mistake. I don’t defend phone hacking, but it is a criminal offence that should be investigated by the police and dealt with by the courts. It has little to do with press regulation.

Thanks to judge-made privacy laws and our oppressive libel laws, British journalism already operates under one of the most hostile environments for free speech in the Western world. Yet, despite these constraints, British journalists frequently make the world a better place.

For an example look no further than this newspaper – the Yorkshire Post, which is renowned across the country for its campaigns and investigations. Local government today is a cleaner and more decent place partly because of this publication’s brave exposure of corruption among councillors in the Donnygate scandal. Or the much maligned and now closed News of the World which broke some huge stories, not least the tales of corruption amongst some members of the Pakistani cricket team that resulted in three international players being jailed last year.

There’s some irony in the fact that the NOTW was closed down at least partly because of a story that proved entirely false – that the newspaper was responsible for deleting messages on Milly Dowler’s phone thereby giving the murdered schoolgirl’s parents false hope that she was alive. I for one will mourn its passing.

What these instances and the Stephen Lawrence coverage demonstrate is that journalism can be a tremendous force of good in public life, and anything that obstructs this vital role should be rejected.

Smokie signal

Most unexpected story of the week was the news that Russia’s president Dmitry Medvedev is apparently a fan of the veteran Bradford rock band Smokie.

The Yorkshire outfit, whose hits include Living Next Door to Alice, was invited to play at an exclusive dinner at the Kremlin last month in front of hundreds of politicians, military figures and the prime minister, Vladimir Putin.

I must admit I’ve not heard much of Smokie since about 1979 and didn’t even realise they were still touring.

But apparently the band has a huge following in eastern Europe and had just finished a Russian tour when they received the invitation to play from Medvedev’s officials. Good for them. It is a pity we don’t support home grown talent more here in the UK. Any chance of an invitation for Smokie from Downing Street?