If any single article demonstrates the abuse of press power, the Daily Mail’s hatchet job on Ralph Miliband, the father of Labour leader Ed Miliband, has got to be right up there with the best of them. The Mail has now twice run an article accusing Miliband Senior of ‘hating Britain’ based on the latter’s disgust at the class privilege and old boys’ networks that he saw running the country.
Condemning his support for nationalisation and outraged by the fact that he swore at Margaret Thatcher’s rising popularity in the wake of the Falklands War, the Mail argues that Ed is determined to introduce, in a future Labour government, the socialist politics of his father.
Where do we start with such hypocrisy from the country’s second most popular newspaper? Would it be churlish to point out that if anyone can be accused of hating Britain, it might be the former proprietor of the Mail, Viscount Rothermere who wrote an editorial in 1934 headlined ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’? Praising the leader of the British Union of Fascists for his ‘sound, commonsense, Conservative doctrine’, it was Rothermere who made sure that the newspaper threw its weight behind Britain’s own fascist party.
Or perhaps we might want to recall more recent vitriol pouring out of the pages of the Mail like columnist Jan Moir’s homophobic attack in 2009 on the death of the singer Stephen Gateley, describing the circumstances of his death as ‘more than a little sleazy’ and arguing that ‘it strikes another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships’. The PCC received over 25,000 complaints, including one from Gateley’s partner, which were not upheld.
Or what about Richard Littlejohn’s column in the Mail earlier this year in which he wrote about the suicide of the trans teacher Lucy Meadows? The piece was headlined ‘He’s not only in the wrong body…he’s in the wrong job’ and attacked not the discrimination against trans people but a PC environment in which no one had considered the ‘devastating effect’ on Meadows’ students of her gender transformation. The coroner in the case highlighted the poisonous contribution of the press in general but highlighted the Mail in particular for carrying out a ‘character assassination’ on Meadows.
In this context, Ed Miliband was absolutely right to demand a right-to-reply in the Mail to defend his father—pointing out that this father had actually fought against the Nazis and not sought to support them at home—and to attack the smear campaign instigated by the Mail.
This is not the first time Ed Miliband has attacked the power of unaccountable and unelected media moguls. At the start of the phone hacking crisis he demanded the breakup of Rupert Murdoch’s UK media empire, arguing that ‘if you want to minimise the abuses of power, then that kind of concentration of power is frankly quite dangerous.’
In doing this, he might as well have been drawing on his late father’s arguments about the corrupting influence of concentrated media ownership. In his book, The State in Capitalist Society, published over 40 years ago, Ralph Miliband, unusually for the time, spent nearly a whole chapter assessing the role of the mass media in legitimising the way in which the world is organised and understood. In particular, he warned that the ownership of commercial media by a handful of powerful proprietors would distort democracy and reproduce a conservative consensus. ‘The right of ownership’, he argued, ‘confers the right of making propaganda, and where that right is exercised, it is most likely to be exercised in the service of strongly conservative prejudices, either by positive assertion or by the exclusion of such matters as owners may find it undesirable to punish.’
We need to remember this analysis over the coming weeks and months when the next stage of the battle to secure a more ethical press takes place as the government considers the rival charters that have been put to them following the Leveson Inquiry. The Mail, along with many other titles, is convinced that anything other than industry self-regulation controlled by the industry itself will lead to a ‘chilling’ of free speech and the end of press freedom – in other words the freedom to run inaccurate and personalised attacks on people whose politics or lifestyles it happens to disapprove of.
Ed Miliband is not a powerless victim and he was able, as the leader of the opposition, to demand a right to reply. Many other people—asylum seekers, trade unionists, single mothers, ordinary people—whose rights have been traduced by a sensationalist press are not in such a fortunate position. That is why we need a media that is not in hock to the whims and conservative politics of the media moguls like Rupert Murdoch and Paul Dacre; that is why we need an independent form of regulation that will at least attempt to allow journalists to hold truth to power and not to stigmatise the innocent and vulnerable who cannot defend themselves with front page articles and editorials.
Despite the Mail’s hysterical claims that Ed Miliband is committed to the socialist project of his father, we know that it will take a lot of pressure for the Labour Party to tackle the power of big business and press proprietors. What we really need is a full and open debate about the kind of media system we want that is not overawed by the vested interests whose complicity was so wonderfully exposed during the Leveson Inquiry. You are unlikely to read about this in the Mail but there are plenty of other spaces in which we have to make sure this conversation takes place if we are to break the grip of the moguls on public life.
Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London.