Public Opinion, the Mail and the Milibands: an unacceptable attack

6 10 2013

Ed-Miliband-Daily-MailThe public row over the Daily Mail’s attack on Ed Miliband’s father continues in today’s newspapers.  Most commentators have condemned the way in which the Daily Mail chose to write about Ralph Miliband.  Today’s Observer curiously led with the view of the Master of Wellington College, Anthony Seldon, that “It sets a very bad example to young people to belittle someone who is dead. I think it is nasty, it lacks taste and decency, and I worry about antisemitism”

The Mail has refused to apologise but has had great difficulty in defending the “Man who hated Britain” headline.

But most have defended the paper’s right to attack the political views of the father of the leader of the opposition.  In a leader entitled “Freedom of speech: warts and all” [£] the Sunday Times says

“The article in the Mail about the views of Mr Miliband’s late father was unsympathetic. That said, it was wholly legitimate to examine the thinking of Ralph Miliband, not least because his son had extolled him as an abiding influence on his politics”.

It goes on to mention the results of its YouGov poll [pdf] (as Roy Greenslade points out, curiously not headlined in the paper) saying that this “found that 72% of the public think the Mail’s s description of Ralph Miliband as “the man who hated Britain” was unacceptable”.

The full question to which the Sunday Times is referring was

More specifically, the Daily Mail article described Ralph Miliband as a “man who hated Britain” and as having left an “evil legacy” because he was a Marxist who opposed such institutions as the monarchy, the Church of England and the army. Do you think it was acceptable or unacceptable for the Daily Mail to use this sortof language about Ed  Miliband’s father?

Only 17% of all respondents thought this was “acceptable” and 72% thought it was unacceptable.  Among readers of the Daily Mail 29% thought it was acceptable and 60% thought it unacceptable.

In response to the question “Do you think the Daily Mail should or should not apologise for the language they used about Ralph Miliband?” 69% of all respondents said that they thought the Daily Mail should apologise and 57% of Mail readers were of the same view.

But another question, not highlighted by the Sunday Times is more interesting

This week the Daily Mail published an article about Ed Miliband’s father Ralph Miliband, who died in 1994. Ralph Miliband was a well-known Marxist professor. He came to Britain as a refugee in the second world war, fought in the Royal Navy, then became a British citizen and worked as a university professor. He had strong left-wing views.

Ed Miliband has spoken about his father inspeeches and told of how his family taught him to be interested in politics, but has said that he has taken a different political path and that his father wouldn’t have approved of everything he has done.

In principle, do you think it was acceptable or unacceptable for the Daily Mail to write about and criticise Ralph Miliband’s views and what influence he may have had on Ed Miliband?

65% thought it unacceptable; 26% thought it acceptable and there were 9% don’t knows.

In other words, a substantial majority of the population disagree with the view expressed in the Sunday Times editorial (and elsewhere) that it was acceptable to write about and criticise Ralph Miliband’s views because of his influence on his son.  As with privacy (see our post here) the public is much less in favour of intrusion and abuse than the newspapers believe.

Nevertheless, the last question asked by You Gov on this topic [pdf] suggests that there is no strong public appetite for restrciting the publication of such stories which the press can run:

“Which of the following best represents your view

The Daily Mail’s attack on Ed Miliband’s father is an example of why the press needs stricter controls and regulation

The Daily Mail’s attack on Ed Miliband’s father may have been unacceptable, but it shouldn’t be used as an excuse to restrict the freedom of the press”

31% agreed with the first and 50% with the second.

In short, the YouGov poll suggests that public does not like personal attack on the families of politicians and thinks that, if they are made the press should apologise.  However, the freedom of the press to publish should not be restricted.

As Martin Moore suggests in his piece on “George Orwell, The Daily Mail and Who Really Hates England” the way to deal with this kind of unacceptable content is not to ban it but to refuse to take the newspaper which makes it seriously. The role of a truly independent recognised regulator would be confined to requiring the Daily Mail – after the event – to comply with the Editors’ Code and to correct the inaccuracies in the article and the editorial which accompanied its reprinting.


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