Nick Davies in Flat Earth News:
I spoke to a man who had worked for the Daily Mail for some years as a senior news reporter. He said: 'They phoned me early one morning and told me to drive about three hundred miles to cover a murder. It was a woman and two children who'd been killed. I got an hour and a half into the journey, and the news desk called me on my mobile and said, "Come back." I said, "Why's that?" They said, "They're black."
Sometimes I jump the gun when I write this blog. I suppose it's the nature of a medium that's so given over to instant reaction that sometimes we can say things that given a little bit of time will prove to be a bit hasty.
I hope I'm being hasty today, because I really don't want to believe that even the Mail can be as offhandedly nasty as I think it's being.
On Monday, I looked at the Mail's coverage of the apparently racist murder of a Sri Lankan teenager, Nilanthan Murddi. It was a bit of a sprawling 'on the fly' post, but the jist of it was:
1. the Mail used the picture of a white kid, Connor Black, who was also murdered over the weekend but not the main subject of the article's headline ('Teenager stabbed to death by 'drunk racist' during bloody weekend that claimed two lives') to illustrate search results for the story
2. the original print version of the story, headlined 'Knife crime claims another two teenage lives' had a great amount of space devoted to pictures of Connor Black, the scene of his murder, flowers left at the scene and a picture of the victim of another crime included under the headline despite her not being a teenager, not being the victim of knife crime and not having her life 'claimed' - but no picture of the Asian victim
3. the original print version of the story tried incredibly hard to link the murder to turf wars between rival Sri Lankan gangs, despite the man arrested for the murder being a white 31 year old.
The online version of the story puts some of these things right. It includes a couple of pictures of Nilathan Murddi. The headline's changed to reflect the possible racist motive for the crime. The attempts to link the murder with a Sri Lankan gang turf war have been cut back to saying just that some locals thought he was a member of a gang (scaling back considerably the original claim that a local Councillor said that - which casts doubt on whether he actually did).
The search result picture, however, has disappeared. Not because it's been replaced with a picture of Nilathan Murddi, but because the story doesn't appear in search results for it on the Mail website.
Searching for the headline doesn't return any results. Searching for 'racist murder' doesn't return a result for this story. Searching for 'Nilanthan Murddi' doesn't return a result for this story, but does for another one about David Beckham and knife crime. The only result I can get for this story is by searching only for 'nilanthan' or the original misspelling of his name in the story 'nilanthan moorty', both of which return a result for the new story, with the old version of the headline 'Knife crime Britain claims two more teenage lives as boys aged 16 and 17 are brutally killed'.
Last night, searching for 'connor black' returned the same result (old headline, new version of the story), along with what must be a much earlier incarnation, 'Boys aged 16 and 17 stabbed to death in latest Blade Britain tragedies'('Britain's knife culture claims more victims as two teenage boys are stabbed to death' in the search result) that doesn't include much information about Nilanthan Murddi's murder - probably because not much was known at the time it was written. This morning, searching for 'connor black' only returns the second, older story.
It looks very much like the paper is removing keywords from the new version of the article to make it as difficult as possible to find in a search of the site, while making changes to the version of the story online so that anyone who might follow a link to it doesn't find any material that might be legally sensitive. Whoever's responsible for the site's content has just managed to miss the older misspelling and Nilanthan's forename on its own.
I'm hoping that this is because the paper is preparing much larger coverage of the story. This is not completely unlikely - it would allow the paper to flex its 'we're not racist' muscles, and from a tabloid editor's point of view it won't hurt matters that he has some very photogenic relatives to interview. There's been nothing in the dead tree version of the paper so far - but the original dodgy version was in the Mail on Sunday so we might have to wait until the weekend to see it.
If we don't (as I suspect), then the paper is not allowing its print readers to find out that Murddi is not actually the victim of a turf war between Sri Lankan gangs and that the real likely motive of his murder is racist. It's also making it as difficult as it can for its actual online readers to find that information, while keeping it there to please the lawyers. That would go beyond confirming my worst expectations of the Mail, and they're very low to start with.
Either way, it doesn't change the fact that the paper's initial reaction to news of the stabbing of an Asian kid - with a white man in his thirties as the arrested suspect - was that he must have been the victim of a Sri Lankan gang turf war.
Like I said - that coverage of Stephen Lawrence was over a decade ago.