We all know that the Daily Mail likes to ‘play the man and not the ball’ – in other words it prefers ad hominem attacks to arguing an issue on its merits. In the case of Ed Miliband the paper is exploring a new approach, ignoring both ball and man and instead going for the man’s dead father.
Page after page of the Mail is now devoted to attacking the late Ralph Miliband, all of it delivered with a nastiness that would make Damian McBride squirm. (You would never think this was the paper that, after Margaret Thatcher’s death, published the headline: ‘This bilious hatred and lack of respect for the dead is a disturbing new low in British life’.)
Ordinary Mail readers have seen a lot of this stuff over the years, but even many of them must surely feel the need to wash the bile off their hands after reading the Ralph Miliband articles.
And as usual it may be tricky for readers to identify what the ball actually is – in other words, what it is that has got up the paper’s nose. Being up-front about that, after all, would defeat the point of the smear. It is increasingly clear, none the less, that in this case the problem is the prospect of meaningful press self-regulation, on which Ed Miliband has taken an admirably robust stand.
When the Labour leader had the effrontery to challenge the Mail about the attacks on his father, the paper came up with this:
‘More chillingly, the father’s disdain for freedom of expression can be seen in his son’s determination to place the British Press under statutory control. Next week the Privy Council, itself an arm of the state, will meet to discuss plans — following a stitch-up with Hacked Off over late-night pizzas in Mr Miliband’s office — for what will ultimately be a politically controlled body to oversee what papers are allowed to publish. If he crushes the freedom of the Press, no doubt his father will be proud of him . . .’
This is almost certainly not a record for the Daily Mail, but in those 87 words there are at least six substantial misrepresentations or sleights of hand. Here they are:
(1) Ed Miliband is on record as opposing statutory control of the press. What he wants – like David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Lord Justice Leveson, the victims of press abuse, every party in Parliament and the public – is effective, independent press self-regulation that will protect ordinary people from press cruelty of the kind that made the Leveson Inquiry necessary.
(2) The Privy Council is indeed an arm of the state. The reason it is involved is to placate the press – that’s why David Cameron said there should be a Leveson Royal Charter rather than a Leveson Bill. And if the Mail objects to the Privy Council, why is it currently petitioning the Privy Council to give it (and its friends) a royal charter of their own?
(3) There was no ‘stitch-up with Hacked Off over late-night pizzas in Mr Miliband’s office’. Don’t take our word for it; a Tory minister who was there says so. The Mail knows this, so why does it continue to say something that is untrue?
(4) The body to be considered by the Privy Council next week will not be ‘politically controlled’. By careful design, politicians will be allowed nowhere near it. Yet the alternative backed by the Daily Mail would be wide open to political meddling and would even allow working party politicians to be members.
(5) Nor will the body in question ‘oversee what newspapers are allowed to publish’. In fact it won’t deal with newspapers at all. It will check every few years that the press self-regulator meets certain basic regulatory standards.
(6) The freedom of the press is not at stake here. That is to say, freedom of expression is painstakingly protected under the Leveson scheme. On the other hand, the freedom of powerful press corporations to ‘wreak havoc in the lives of innocent people’, as they have been doing for a decade – yes, let us hope that is at stake.
It is no wonder, given that the Mail has got all of this wrong, that it is unable to mount a sensible argument against the modest steps Ed Miliband (with Cameron and Clegg) is taking in relation to reform of press self-regulation.
And since the Mail hates even the idea of effective self-regulation (which might, for example, try to ensure that inaccuracies such as these were corrected) it resorts to the tactics of the bully-boy, attacking the Labour leader by piling abuse on his dead father.
Curiously, the paper knows that these tactics do not impress even its own readers. Ever since the phone hacking scandal broke the Mail has been pumping out propaganda and bullying in print everyone who disagreed with it, yet a majority of Daily Mail readers stubbornly defies the paper’s line – and a poll in July showed that 59 per cent of Mail readers wanted their paper to accept the Leveson reforms.
IMPORTANT NOTE. Nothing in this article suggests that the Daily Mail should not be free to express its opinions. It should (and equally we should all be free to judge the Mail by its actions, preferably without having our dead relatives maligned as a consequence). At the same time, under the code of practice it publicly accepts, the Mail promises to be accurate and fair and to correct its mistakes. We look forward to it doing that in this case.
Brian Cathcart is the Executive Director of Hacked Off.