Miliband, the Mail and making sense of malice

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I haven’t read the Daily Mail’s article about Ralph Miliband. Nor have I read Ed Miliband’s response. I did look at a photo posted on twitter of the Daily Mail’s editorial defending their decision and I read a bit about that. Whenever national papers quote the Bible in their editorials it always peaks my interest.

I come to this like a lot of people. My views of the situation are mediated by how it has been presented, and as I decided to write something I took the decision to not read the pieces. And this is how I see it.

  • The Daily Mail ran a column saying nasty things about Ralph Miliband, father to Ed and David, including that he was a Marxist, called him evil, and that he hated Britain.
  • Ed Miliband complained and the paper agreed to publish a right of reply. He wrote it saying how day you say nasty things about my Dad, he fought in the Navy, he was a patriot.
  • The Daily Mail duly published this response but alongside a reprint of the original piece and a editorial defending the decision and refusing to apologise.
  • Hysteria broke out.
  • Photos of previous Daily Mail proprietors posing with Hitler were found and the Mail’s fascist sympathies in the 1930s were recalled.
  • It turned into something resembling, your dead forebears were worse than our dead forebears.
  • The Daily Mail continued to publish pieces highly critical of the Milibands
  • The Labour party turned this into a data harvesting exercise to get supporters and donations, and to generally galvanise outrage.
  • Alastair Campbell somehow got involved. Yelled quite a lot at deputy editor on Newsnight, who basically refused to say anything, and once again refused to back down.
  • The Mail on Sunday sent two journalists to Ed Miliband’s uncle’s memorial service looking for a reaction to the furore. Full apology given and journalists suspended.
  • Paul Dacre editor of the Daily Mail has said nothing so Alastair Campbell decided to launch an online petition calling for a debate, which had last check had 43,000 supporters.

And that’s how I’ve followed this latest controversy de jour, or de semaine. It’s not been very edifying. And the conventional wisdom seems to be spreading that this has massively backfired. There has also been speculation that the Daily Mail went down this particularly aggressive route in retaliation for Labour’s support of statutory press regulation

It really shouldn’t be necessary, but in light of what I’m about to say let me make this abundantly clear: from what I’ve seen, the way Ralph Miliband was described and used as a proxy to attack his son is deplorable. If you’re going to have a go at someone, have a go at them, don’t do it through the teenage writings of their now dead father.

I want to examine two things, one the idea that Ralph Miliband was evil, and the second that this will help Labour. Firstly, I don’t think that particular positions on the monarchy, democracy, or other cherished institutions make someone evil. I also wonder if a committed Marxist, as I believe Ralph Miliband was, would be against the idea of the nation state of Britain, in the way they would oppose any nation state and prefer and international socialism. But that’s a tangent

What does make someone evil? Is it a label so niche it is reserved for Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and maybe George W Bush if you’re so inclined. Oh, and it’s also used to describe those who contemporaneously commit acts so vile they still appal our collective conscious. Basically paedophiles, rapists and murders. The tag of ‘evil’ suggests someone no sane human would ever support.

But that’s not how we are. We are not defined by the acts that we do, as egregious or exemplary as they may be. One is not made evil by committing horrific wrongs, or made good by their acts of kindness. So no more is Ralph Miliband evil than are you or I, but evil we do, and a propensity to do it comes more often than we would like to imagine.

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

While evil is so rare to never be something applied to regular people sin is trivialised, as Francis Spufford comments, to mean things like indulging in a bit too much chocolate. But we have a propensity to wreck things, the HPtFTu as Spufford puts it.

On the other point, will this really help Labour? Well maybe. It has certainly galvanised many on the left, and outraged people across the spectrum. It’s simply not nice to treat people as Ralph Miliband was treated. Nor how Margaret Thatcher was upon her death.

It has provoked people to have a go at the Daily Mail, refuse to buy it, encourage advertisers to pull out, call for better press regulation. And for the editor to debate Alastair Campbell. From what I’ve seen and picked up I do not think that what the Daily Mail published should be stopped from being published again. I would prefer they didn’t, I think it is damaging for our trust and appreciation for politician regardless of their position, but I don’t think it should be stopped. I think seguing this into an argument for better regulation of the press comes close to arguing that they cannot say nasty things about us. A free press requires that they can.

UKIP benefit when politicians have a go at them. They thrive when they are mocked, abused, hounded by the press. When Michael Crick doorsteps one of their MEPs can get swotted by a fly UKIP are seen as refusing to dance to the tune set by the media establishment. They do well when other people think they are making fools of themselves. Their very outsider status makes them particularly hard to respond to.

I wonder if the same is happening here with the Daily Mail. While the collective establishment is outraged and shocked that they would publish such words and follow it up with such a relentlessly personal campaign against one family. I wonder, I just wonder, if there are many people who side with the Daily Mail, who read their pages and are not outraged, who do not get the commentariat’s little jokes about the side bar of shame. Who read the columns and see the headlines, and follow the coverage and will walk away with the conclusion that Ed Miliband is not the man to lead Britain.

And that’s why I chose not to read the pieces, because many who respond to them and whose views of politics and the press are affected by them will not have either. The impression that a situation provokes, especially one such as this is as important as the actual content and intention.

I’m not saying for a moment that they should, that this justifies the words printed, or their stoic defence. But I think we should pause a moment before laughing in their face and thinking it has failed to achieve what they might have intended. A lot is often misappropriated in the name of the silent majority, the masses beyond Westminster, Mr Mondeo and Mrs Mitsubishi, but maybe more identify with what those anti-establishment voices say than we might like.

And can I say one more thing before the outrage descends? Perhaps among the legitimate outrage and annoyance, among the valid grievance and complaint, is just a hint of the feigned and the faux? That this is a good stick to beat a paper never accommodating to Labour’s policies, positions or personalities, and now they have a good reason for that cleft to become a canyon. And at the time getting their supporters impassioned and empowered.

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