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Thursday, October 03, 2013 

No one to blame but himself.

When the Mail gets it wrong, it tends to get it spectacularly, boneheadedly, irredeemably wrong. Ever since Geoffrey Levy and (presumably) Paul Dacre decided it was a great idea to portray the deceased father of the Labour leader as a man who hated the country that gave him refuge and which he had to request to serve in the navy for, it has just kept on digging. Mocked for claiming a juvenile diary entry proved his loathing, it shifted to claiming his Marxism is why he hated our freedom. Except, as scholars and those who were taught by him have pointed out, his Marxism never extended to apologia for the Soviet Union or any other communist state. His socialism was democratic, just to the left of that offered by Labour. All they can point to is that his home played host to other thinkers on the left, not all of whom entirely rejected communism. By the same yardstick countless of those on the right could be equally condemned for their cosying up to authoritarians and dictators.  That his son is now the leader of the party he wrote would always betray the working class also gives the lie to the idea that he is a "dangerous" influence.

Quite what the executives who sent the reporter to the memorial service for Miliband's uncle possibly thought they would achieve is therefore difficult to ascertain. Did they seriously imagine those there would tell them something they could use? Or was this simply classic tabloid behaviour, deliberately pestering them simply because Ed had dared to respond in kind?  The PCC code (which is still in operation, fact fans) forbids journalists from entering private sections of hospitals unless there is a public interest in doing so, which while Paul Dacre would inevitably claim there was, is quite apparently not there.

It's Dacre's role since the beginning which is major point in all this.  Was he the one who decided upon the "man who hated Britain" headline?  Was he the executive who sent the Mail on Sunday hack to Professor Harry Keen's memorial?  And was he also responsible for deciding this morning that the paper shouldn't apologise, the MoS editor Geordie Greig, who was apparently unaware of the doorstepping, having told Miliband one would be issued this morning?  If so, then he seems to have made miscalculation after miscalculation, not expecting that Miliband would go to Rothermere himself with his complaint.

One thing people shouldn't be getting however is carried away.  While this has been classic Mail behaviour, it pales in comparison to the kind those who aren't leaders of the opposition have gone through.  For now at least, Miliband and the Labour leadership have judged their response just about right, but the letter to Rothermere almost crosses the boundary between justified complaint and the suggestion that they should think twice before writing anything.  Miliband might be dead right in saying that this entire episode is indicative of the Mail's culture and practices, or at least is of Paul Dacre's, as that's clearly the sentiment being expressed, but there's an extremely fine line between criticising newspapers for going beyond what's acceptable and politicians being seen to be potentially intimidating their critics.

That, frankly, is what some either within Labour or now outside have been attempting to do.  We can all agree that Alastair Campbell's lambasting of the Mail's Jon Steafel on Newsnight made for great television, yet Campbell is the absolute last person to be taking the moral high ground when it comes to smear stories.  One aspect of the Damian McBride book serialisation which was undeveloped was that neither he nor Campbell, or those in the Blair camp after Campbell left could have run their operations without the help of journalists willing to write up their attacks on each other.  Politics is only as dirty as the media that facilitate such briefings.  Nor is this a Milly Dowler moment, and for the likes of John Prescott to be trying to make it into one by suggesting to advertisers that they should stop doing business with the Mail is absurd.

The most significant thing is that unlike during the 80s, when tabloid smearing of Labour figures was par for the course, this time politicians of all parties have been explicit in condemning the Mail.  True, Cameron and Boris Johnson claimed not to have read or seen the piece and so only said they would defend their fathers from unfair criticism as well, but others such as Francis Maude have gone far beyond that.  With the Sun clearly in decline, not least thanks to Murdoch's decision to put it behind a paywall, the Mail is without doubt the most powerful newspaper in the country.  If some Tories are now prepared to go against it, it's indicative of just how quickly the influence the media barons once had is declining.  And how delicious that Dacre has no one to blame but himself.

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