Daily Mail 1997 Murderers
The 1997 Daily Mail front page, mocked up by editor Paul Dacre, which accused the five suspects of murder

The Daily Mail has been praised by the parents of Stephen Lawrence, as well as the prime minister and Labour leader Ed Miliband, for its controversial 1997 front page and subsequent campaign over the Stephen Lawrence murder case.

The front page became famous for its "Murderers" headline, under which the newspaper printed photographs of the five men suspected of Lawrence's 1993 murder and declared "The Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong, let them sue us".

The Mail reprinted the front page in July 2006 after new evidence emerged in the case, and again today in the wake of two of the original five suspects – Gary Dobson and David Norris – being convicted of Lawrence's murder.

Lawrence's mother Doreen, quoted in the Mail today, said that before the controversial front page "nobody – apart from those in their local neighbourhood – really knew what these boys looked like".

"Then the whole country knew. They were no longer faceless people. That helped and also the part the media coverage played in bringing about the inquiry. If the Mail hadn’t been publicising what was happening around Stephen and getting it out there, a lot of people wouldn’t have known about the injustice around him as a young man."

Lawrence's father Neville said: "I was very pleased, but I admit that at first I was frightened, too, because I realised the implications. If you name people as murderers you have to be pretty sure you have the proof or you’ll be in trouble.

"But the fact that the Mail – which is a very influential newspaper – went out on a limb for us showed how committed you were to the case. Not a lot of editors would have done that. Not a lot would have chanced it."

Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, said in a preprepared video statement yesterday that printing the front page was a "monumental risk".

"The Daily Mail took a monumental risk with that headline and in many ways it was an outrageous, unprecedented step. But I'd like to think that as a result we did a huge amount of good and made a little bit of history that day."

Dacre admitted that the page was "contempt of a cosmic order", and said he "woke up at four in the morning" that night, "drenched in sweat and convinced that my career was all over".

But the newspaper's publisher Associated Newspapers was not pursued for contempt of court, and went on to campaign over the case for years.

David Cameron said in the wake of the verdict yesterday that the Lawrence family's quest for justice had been "helped by the campaigning journalism of the Daily Mail, which put this issue front and centre". Labour leader Ed Miliband told the Mail: "At a time when the reputation of the newspaper industry is at an all-time low, it is important to recognise when campaigning journalism makes a difference. That includes the honourable role the Daily Mail has played over almost two decades in helping bring the killers of Stephen Lawrence to justice."

Dobson and Norris were among the five original suspects in the Lawrence murder, but were never convicted of the crime despite a criminal investigation, a private prosecution brought by the Lawrence family, and an inquest into the murder.

In 1999, the MacPherson inquiry led to the scrapping of the double jeopardy law which would have prevented Dobson and Norris being retried for the crime, and yesterday they were found guilty after new forensic evidence emerged. They are due to be sentenced today.

In November this year, the Spectator magazine failed to escape a contempt action over its coverage of the Lawrence trial, and was referred to the director of public prosecutions over an article by columnist Rod Liddle.

The article was removed from the Spectator's website, and the jury in the case were instructed by judge Mr Justice Treacy not to read the edition of the magazine.

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