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.

The Daily Mail: What an insult to Christians

Jan Feb 2012 008The Daily Mail splashed their front page this morning with “An Insult to Christians”. No, that’s not how I’m describing it, that is their actual headline.

They might think it is a descriptor of the dreadful events they outline in their story, but it is a far closer label for their own treatment of Christians. And in particular in thinking that the situation they discuss is an insult to anyone.

The “insult” is that followers of other religious belief systems including paganism and non religious deeply held belief systems such as vegetarianism will receive the same protections as Christians. Firstly, this is not news. Secondly, it is not controversial (although a little tricky to implement). Thirdly, this is not an insult.

The law has for a while placed all religious and non religious beliefs on a par with regards to their protection under the law. Although only in the last decade has it been codified into statute through regulations following the 2003 Equality Act, and then drawn together in the 2010 Act, court precedence has provided strong protection for non-Christian beliefs in a similar manner (although due to differences in beliefs never quite the same).

The dreadful situation before us today has occurred because the Equality and Human Rights Commission issued guidance last month on how employers should handle religious beliefs and their manifestation. This in the wake of Nadia Eweida’s successful claim in the European Court of Human Rights that her employer had failed to protect her freedom of religious expression when they said wearing a visible cross was against their uniform policy. Legal precedence on religious belief protection is often carried across from one belief to another so there was absolutely nothing of controversy or even interest in the EHRC saying the judgement would affect employers responsibilities towards those with other beliefs.

The controversy has been whipped up because a gaggle of Tory MPs on the right of their party were baited into giving a critical judgement of the EHRC. This is hardly a difficult topic to exploit for that effect, it is high on the list of bodies those of their ilk would prefer were scrapped. What is most controversial about the guidelines is that they had to be written at all, because one would have thought it was common sense. But apparently this morning has demonstrated just why it is necessary.

The requirement to protect non-religious beliefs is also not a new one. A key legal case in 1978 Arrowsmith v United Kingdom found that the applicant’s beliefs in pacifism were deeply held and sufficient to warrant protection under Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights. The court found against the claimant for wider reasons but importantly held her beliefs were worthy of protection. The ECtHR judgement in the case of Eweida et al also found that the actions of all four claimants were borne out of religious beliefs and therefore worthy of protection. The Court also went further and said that it was not up to them or any other applicable body to decide what was or was not of sufficient centrality in a belief system to merit protection, or what actions arising from those beliefs should be counted as a manifestation of belief. What the court held to matter was that the belief and action was of importance to the applicant.

Therefore, while this eases the difficulty of deciding when a belief or action becomes sufficiently meritorious for protection, it opens up a whole other can of worms in potentially allowing any belief or opinion protection on these ground. While this is a tricky situation for courts to adjudicate it is not a particularly controversial one. While the beliefs and actions may come under Article 9 jurisdiction it does not mean an employer is forced to allow them. In the case of Eweida the court found that the uniform policy was insufficient grounds to restrict the wearing of a cross, but in Chaplin found the health and safety concerns in a hospital, coupled with the proposal of alternative ways of wearing the cross, were sufficient grounds and found against the claimant. The court also found in Ladele and McFarlane that the equality and anti-discrimination policies of their employers also provided the latitude for their requests to be denied. (This is a more controversial decision and what is at the heart of an emerging hierarchy of rights among equality strands.)

Therefore I doubt that a vegetarian employed in a kitchen role would be granted a request not to handle meat. If it is a central part of the job which would put an unreasonable burden on the company and other staff I suspect the request could be legitimately denied. If however, the staff member is employed in another role but is asked on occasion to assist in the kitchen the request may well be expected to be granted. If we expect a common sense type of accommodation of reasonable requests we also have to understand situations where without any hint of an attack on Christian belief they might not be accommodated.

Finally, this is not an insult. An insult would be to suggest that Christian beliefs alone are worthy of protection. Or moreover that Christian beliefs and practices need more protection than other beliefs. I want the freedom to practice and promote my beliefs and I think the surest way of ensuring that is to fight for others to have the same rights that I do. I may think they are wacky, I may find them absurd. I may even find them offensive. But I want to fight for their freedom of belief: I want them to be as free to promote their beliefs as I want to be to promote mine.

Freedom of belief means freedom of belief for everyone. And at the heart of the Christian message is a voice of freedom that calls into the wilderness. That releases slaves from their captors. It is freedom to choose to worship a God who chose to send his Son so that we could have life and life in all its fullness.

It is the freedom not to worship that makes the choice to worship such a precious gift we have to offer.

To suggest that Christians would rather others were not free to follow their beliefs is an insult.