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Miliband versus the ‘Mail’



Publicada el 16/10/2013 a las 06:00
Spanish version   Español

After a successful annual party conference last month, Labour Party leader Ed Miliband has enhanced his credibility as a contender for power at the next general election, due to be held by May 2015 at the latest. Predictably, Britain's right-wing tabloid press, fearful of Labour's possible return to government, has begun to sharpen its attacks on its leader and platform. Yet even by its typically sordid standards, the Daily Mail's vilification, on 27th September, of Miliband's late father, Ralph Miliband, appears to have crossed the boundaries of decency and, in so doing, generated a chorus of condemnation from across the political spectrum.

After arriving in Britain as a young Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Ralph Miliband enjoyed a long and distinguished career – including several years at the London School of Economics (LSE) – as a Marxist academic and intellectual. In classic books such as Parliamentary Socialism (1961) and The State in Capitalist Society (1969), Miliband presented trenchant and carefully researched critiques of Britain's class structure and the deep economic and social inequalities that it engendered.

Ed Miliband's acknowledgement of his late father's influence on his own thinking was enough to cause the Daily Mail a fit of hysteria. In a vitriolic article entitled “The man who hated Britain”, Miliband Sr. was lambasted as an ungrateful refugee who “devoted his life to preaching one of history's most poisonous dogmas” and who was, by implication, an apologist for the atrocities of Stalinism. Such was his indignation that Ed Miliband, unusually for a senior politician, demanded a formal right of reply which was accepted, grudgingly, by the Mail. In his article, Miliband defended eloquently his father's patriotism, which included three years' service in the Royal Navy during World War Two and involvement in the D-Day landings.

With an average daily circulation (in June 2013) of 1.78 million, the Daily Mail is second only to The Sun in terms of sales. Appealing to the prejudices of the most reactionary sections of the English middle class, its typical bêtes-noires include welfare cheats, single mothers, public sector workers, trade unionists, and women, gays, lesbians and immigrants in general. Its hatred for the Labour Party is limitless and the paper has been responsible for extremely vicious and personal assaults on successive Labour leaders.

While the term “fascist” ought to be used carefully, it is not inappropriate for describing the Mail. In the 1930s, the paper's owner Viscount Rothermere (great-grandfather of the current proprietor) advocated the appeasement of Hitler, congratulated the latter on his seizure of the Sudetenland, and, for a time, supported Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists. In its treatment of Ralph Miliband, the paper resorted to the classic and crude fascist technique of imposing its own definition of patriotism and denigrating anyone who dared, like Miliband, to deviate from this definition.

Miliband's open disdain for elite institutions, including the major private schools, Oxford and Cambridge universities, the church, the army and the Times newspaper, was therefore evidence of his hatred for Britain. Yet as Rabbi Danny Rich remarked, “The Daily Mail is playing with fire. The danger is that the paper's attack on Ralph Miliband gives legitimacy to those that seek to cast all refugees and immigrants as 'outsiders' and question their loyalty”.

On this occasion, however, the Mail seems to have miscalculated. Not surprisingly, longstanding friends of Ralph Miliband defended him. Tariq Ali, for example, noted that “To try and paint him as some sort of rabid person who loathed everything about this country is just a complete parody with no basis in fact. He was like a lot of the British left; that is, very critical of its ruling class, its empire and its institutions. But that is hardly a surprise”. Leo Panitch, with whom Miliband edited the Socialist Register for many years, commented “Of course he didn't hate the United Kingdom. He hated the class system in the United Kingdom, and was acutely aware of the effect that rags like the Daily Mail, dedicated to reproducing that class system, sometimes had on working-class opinion”.

Less predictably, condemnation of the Mail came from senior Conservative politicians, including several who served in the cabinet of the Mail's great heroine, Margaret Thatcher. Former Defence Secretary Lord Heseltine remarked that “this is carrying politics to an extent that is just demeaning, frankly. The headline isn't justified. It is completely out of context (..) This guy fought for this country and we now live in a totally different world to the clash between communism and fascism”.

Lord Moore, a member of Thatcher's cabinet between 1986 and 1989, and a former student himself at the LSE, described Miliband as a “great academic” and “one of the most inspiring and objective teachers I had (..) He had come here as a refugee, done his duty to his adopted country by serving in our Royal Navy during the war, become a great academic and raised a good family (..) the Daily Mail is telling lies about a good man who I knew”.

To date, the Daily Mail has refused to apologize for its original article, despite evidence of widespread public outrage at its conduct. A YouGov poll cited in The Guardian on 7th October revealed that 72% of the public believed the Mail had been wrong to call Miliband's father “the man who hated Britain”, while 69% of people in general and 57% of the Mail's own readers thought that the paper should apologize. To what extent such public repudiation will damage the newspaper remains to be seen, but the row has erupted at a particularly delicate moment in Britain in relations between the press, politicians and the public.

On the one hand, tabloid journalism remains exceptionally popular. In June 2013, the average combined daily circulation of the five leading tabloids (The Sun, the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Star and the Daily Express) was, at a staggering 6.18 million, more than four times that of the combined average daily circulation of the five so-called “serious” newspapers (the Daily Telegraph, The Times, the Financial Times, The Guardian and The Independent).

On the other hand, there have been signs of growing public weariness with the tabloids' excesses. For example, the closure in July 2011 of Rupert Murdoch's News of the World, at the time Britain's oldest newspaper, was the direct result of public revulsion at its criminal involvement in telephone hacking, and led for calls for some form of statutory control of the press and its activities. The latter is currently being debated by British MPs and the row between the Mail and Ed Miliband has certainly brought the issues involved into sharp focus, with one newspaper proprietor lamenting that it has “deepened the schism” between politicians and the press.

The largest newspaper groups and proprietors argue that freedom of the press is fundamental to the functioning of a mature democracy. Few politicians would disagree, but many argue that such freedoms should be exercised with greater responsibility, and there is a growing consensus among politicians in favour of regulation, even if they are vague about its scale and form.

In the meantime, for the Labour Party itself, the political consequences of Miliband's calculated, but courageous, decision to take on frontally an influential tabloid like the Daily Mail are unclear. One thing is certain: it can expect an even rougher ride than usual from its traditional nemesis in the run-up to the next election. Commenting in The Guardian on 2nd October, a former aide to Tony Blair warned that the row would not be forgotten by the newspaper: “The Mail will certainly remember it (..) The Mail's opposition [to Labour] in 2015 was always going to be off the scale. This has sent them further”.

Such remarks are ominous. Of the five main tabloids in Britain, only the Daily Mirror is centre-left; the others are rabidly anti-Labour. They are, of course, entitled to be. But given their ethos and history – and sadly for British democracy – they will privilege lies, distortions and smears over legitimate criticism of Labour's policies as a means of derailing the party's push for power in 2015.

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Andrew Richards en investigador senior en el Centro de Estudios Avanzados en Ciencias Sociales del Instituto Juan March. Doctor por la Universidad de Princeton, es autor del libro Miners on Strike (Berg, 1996). En la actualidad está escribiendo una biografía de Salvador Allende.
 
 
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