FIEFDOM of the PRESS
In the vast fields of cant and humbug, few notions are cantier and more humbuggy than that mantra of holy writ “the freedom of the press”. It is trotted out at every verse end as a supposedly unanswerable Good Thing. But think about it for a moment: is it even remotely true that the press is free?
“The function of the press in society is to inform,” wrote the great American columnist AJ Liebling in 1947, “but its role is to make money”. And so it is. British newspapers like to characterise themselves as the fourth estate, the next power in the body politic after the peers, the bishops and the Commons. In truth, they constitute no such civic, disinterested thing: more accurately, they are the first snouts in the free market trough.
Like football teams, hotels, theatres, airlines and television companies, newspapers are speculative ventures available only to those with money to burn. They can be cash cows but they can also harmorrhage capital. Consequently, newspaper proprietors (like their coevals in the big, chancy project game) are apt to seek to avoid paying tax. Most owners of British newspapers live abroad for tax purposes. They have a vested interest in the editorial lines of their organs being angled in favour of politicians who may be expected to allow them to continue to benefit from tax loopholes.
Their own survival as hobbies for non-doms is a powerful incentive for newspapers to back parties that preach low-tax, deregulated, small-government, liberal economies. For them, the left in general and regulation in particular are the sworn enemies. It follows that all notions associated with change in the balance of power and of benefit are anathema to most of the public sheets.
How can they claim to be a free press? Try to place a piece excoriating capitalism in The Daily Telegraph or an article advocating progressive social values in the Daily Express. Well, good luck with that. The greater part of the muster of national newspapers is called, for good reason, “the Tory press”.
The moniker can be misleading, though. Several titles have habitually given David Cameron a roughish ride because they consider him a trimmer and they oppose his positions on coalition, on Europe and on social issues, particularly same-sex marriage. Cameron is not Tory enough for them. Yet the News International papers, at their proprietor’s bidding, shifted away from the Tories when Tony Blair had practised sufficient bowing and scraping to Rupert Murdoch to convince the old rogue that his businesses had nothing to fear from a less principled – particularly on Europe – party leader than the then Tory prime minister, John Major.
Simply put, right wing and compliant political leaders get a kindly press; reformist, liberal or supposedly ‘weak’ leaders get hammered. Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, Jim Callaghan, Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, John Major, William Hague, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and now Ed Miliband became victims of wave after wave of black propaganda, though given a choice between Cameron and Miliband the papers obviously favour the former. Margaret Thatcher scampered up and down Fleet Street bestowing knighthoods and tax breaks to all and sundry and they loved her for it. Tony Blair, Ian Duncan Smith and Michael Howard all were broadly supported.
But politics doesn’t especially shift copies, especially when (as now) the owners don’t care for any of the leaders. Consequently, all the papers have become more brutish about what they see as their right to cover anything and everything. In a telling television documentary, Michael Jackson and the Boy He Paid Off, made by Blast! Films for the BBC in 2004 (before the extended court case that cleared Jackson of abuse), two American views provided a chilling insight into the behaviour of UK hacks. “I think all of Fleet Street loaded up all their money and put it in a 747 and flew it to the United States to start the buying of information” said journalist Don Ray. And Ray Chandler, the uncle of the eponymous boy, reported that “it was mostly the British tabloids that would invade your privacy. Most of the press was pretty good. They stayed on the public street. But the Brits don’t seem to have much concern for that. So they’re definitely the most aggressive”.
It’s this right to report, however unwelcome to whomever, that the papers claim. “Freedom of the press” Liebling observed drily “is guaranteed only to those who own one”. And the freedoms that the monkeys of those owners claim are the freedoms to lie, to distort, to invade people’s privacy, to blackguard and traduce anyone they fancy to be fair game, preferably public figures who sell more copies but, if not, hitherto obscure people. The countervailing right – to be left alone – is not one that the press feel a need to champion.
Not that I wish a return to the bad old days, when the only readers denied knowledge of Edward VIII’s determination to wed a divorced woman were those in his own country. Such a matter is a legitimate public concern. But people in the public eye ought to be able to lead their lives, even if reprehensibly in a moral sense, without papers buying the tittle-tattle of their intimates. Unbridled chequebook journalism makes privacy impossible for public people.
Whether a footballer committed adultery is of no interest to me and I genuinely wish it were of no interest to anyone else. Editors will throw up their hands in mock innocence and say that this salacious gossip is what the readers want.
Well, the press created the appetite for it in the first place. Now scurrility is an industry, presided over by its laughing-all-the-way-to-the-bank king, Max Clifford. Whenever you see this PR man interviewed on location, you always glimpse a palatial home in the background. He has negotiated another silly-money fee from a tabloid and pocketed his handsome cut. No wonder those who have had sex with the famous are tempted to betray them. How poetic that the worm may have turned and Clifford himself be feeling the bite.
The treachery is much grubbier when perpetrated by a former employee, especially one with whom many moments of personal pain have been shared. If anybody embodies the debased spirit of the age, it is surely the former butler to the royal household, Paul Burrell. His comprehensive duplicity and flagrant lack of taste, judgment or modesty set a new low no doubt to be aped by others who, in another age, would have been dismissed as cads and bounders.
There is an exception to the right of public figures to keep their family and personal considerations private. When politicians parade their spouses and children in their election literature and on the stump, the electorate are entitled to be appraised if this happy image turns out to be a sham. Cæsar’s wife must be above suspicion as Plutarch is so often quoted as having it (“I thought that my wife should not even come under suspicion” Plutarch has the Emperor say in The Life of Julius Cæsar). By making an electoral convenience of an image of a conventional home life, politicians do surrender any right to betray that home life with impunity.
Ralph Miliband served in the Royal Navy during the war and took part in the Normandy landings
Which brings me, sideways-on, to the business of the Daily Mail and Ralph Miliband, the late father of Ed and David. On September 28th, the Mail ran a piece, credited to an in-house hack called Geoffrey Levy, about the politics of Ralph Miliband. The piece was highly selective, calculatedly nasty and designed to affront Ed. It was just the sort of piece that alienates those who believe the paper to be a scurrilous, biased mouthpiece for the archetypal blowhard barfly who knows nothing but has a loud and definite opinion about everything. The Mail doesn’t care about that. It doesn’t seek such people as readers.
The article used terms like ‘determined’, ‘uncompromising’ and ‘cause’ as though they proved that Ralph Miliband was a dangerous fanatic, as though such terms could never attach themselves to the Mail’s character. Even his “quickly learning English” implied something sinister, rather than an example of the self-discipline that the paper would ordinarily expect of immigrants and refugees like Miliband.
The former Labour spin-doctor Damian McBride was quoted, not my own choice for a reliable source. Indeed, McBride was described as a degenerate, a curious way for a paper to treat a man after happily publishing extracts from his book for which Paul Dacre, the editor, paid a six-figure sum.
Trying to link Ralph’s Marxism to Ed, the piece singled out “giving councils draconian new powers to seize into public ownership land held by developers who fail to build on it”. As it happens, this dangerously revolutionary Miliband policy is also proposed by that notoriously unreconstructed Leninist Boris Johnson.
And of course the kind of IVth-form psychology that always has a place in tabloid smears was not forgotten: “One is entitled to wonder whether Ralph Miliband’s Marxism was actually fuelled by a giant-sized social chip on his shoulder as he lived in his adoptive country”. Ah yes, the Mail unerringly gets to the nub of it: envy of the sort of inherited wealth enjoyed by the Rothermeres through their ownership of the Mail produces an inferiority complex in those unfortunate enough to be anything other than stout-hearted, god-fearing Englishmen.
Much more calculated, nasty and offensive than anything in Levy’s paste-together were the headline (which Ed Miliband reasonably called “lurid”) and the standfirst put above the article: “The man who hated Britain: Red Ed’s pledge to bring back socialism is a homage to his Marxist father. So what did Miliband Snr really believe in? The answer should disturb everyone who loves this country”. Paul Dacre knows what he’s doing. He knows that headlines are what stick in the memory. “The man who hated Britain” and its association with Ed Miliband will resound in the subconscious of many who see it. It of course carries a whiff of xenophobia, a stance that always plays well with the Mail’s readership, but the Jewish name of the author of the piece acts as a beard to cover that possibility.
Ed Miliband was inevitably faced with a dilemma. Rising to the bait risked projecting the story’s impact far beyond the readership of the paper. The matter of press regulation is about to come back into the public consciousness with the privy council due to pronounce on the proprietors’ proposal for continued self-regulation of the press on October 9th. Miliband has already made an enemy of News International over phone-hacking. The argument that he is a threat to “press freedom” is likely to be made far beyond the editorial offices of the Mail.
On the other hand, the Tory press and party like to try to characterise him as weak, even though he has made several moves that Cameron would not have dared to make. He went with his instinct and requested a right to reply in the paper, which took his piece but reprinted the offending article alongside it and ran an editorial (smacking of Dacre’s own hand) that began, in demeaning and puerile fashion: “Red Ed’s in a strop with the Mail” and went on to refer to “his tetchy and menacing response”, which account could only have been swallowed by readers who didn’t read the Miliband.
The paper also described its original piece as an “exposé of [Ralph Miliband’s] political philosophy” as if it had hitherto been some kind of secret that he was a Marxist. “As for the Falklands war,” continued the editorial, “our [sic] defence of British sovereignty so appalled him that it moved him to four-letter words of disgust”. Be assured that no such outrage has ever sullied the editorial floor of the Daily Mail.
Another absurd reference was to Miliband’s “attacks on us, repeated ad nauseam by a gleeful BBC”. To characterise Miliband’s measured response to a pre-emptive personal strike initiated by the paper as “attacks” is plain silly. As for the BBC, no chance to take a pop at that institution is ever turned down, even when, as here, there is no justification for it. The BBC’s coverage has bent over backwards to balance the Mail’s view with that of its opponents – who have emerged from all parts of the political spectrum – and it has returned to the story no more regularly than any other news outlet.
Last Friday, on the 6 o’clock and 10 o’clock news bulletins on BBC1, the Mail’s city editor, Alex Brummer, was put up to speak for the paper. That Brummer is the son of refugee Jewish immigrants and a former Guardian man did not escape notice. Here’s what Brummer had to say: “I think the Labour Party’s stepped over a line by turning its guns on us over a whole week. I mean, we addressed the problem, we gave Ed Miliband space in the paper to rebut the charges against him. He’s chosen now to turn it into a political argument. He’s using his own family to turn it into a political argument against our paper. I think we should be robust and resist that”. The final sentence was cut from the later broadcast.
The saying “what planet is he living on?” springs to mind. By Friday, the matter had only been news beyond the paper and Ed Miliband for four days, not “a whole week”, and the Labour Party has played less than a walk-on part. The paper’s “charges” were against Ralph, not Ed Miliband, and Ed rebutted only the lies about his father; David Cameron rapidly remarked that he would do the same. As for “using his own family”, this is just preposterous. Did Brummer miss the references to Miliband’s father in the offending article that kicked off the episode? That original piece said: “Like all left-wing thinkers, Ralph Miliband knew how to explain away awkward events”. It’s a skill Brummer might usefully acquire.
Here’s what I would say to Brummer. The Labour Party does actually punch very hard, not physically but using its skills as a political organisation which appeals to a huge number of people in this country. And this scares the press. They then say “I’m being bullied”. Oh for heaven’s sake, grow up, y’know. I just don’t have much sympathy.
The veteran Mail reporter Ann Leslie was also on the early BBC bulletin. I’m glad the Blair government gave her a damehood because she always sports so much slap that she looks like a pantomime dame – neither George Lacey nor Douglas Byng ever favoured such maquillage. Here’s what the dame had to say: “The Daily Mail does actually punch very hard, not physically but using its skills as a newspaper which appeals to a huge number of people in this country. And this scares the left. They then say ‘I’m being bullied’. Oh, for heaven’s sake, grow up,’ y’now. I just don’t have much sympathy”. For the record, the Mail’s circulation is a little over 1.5 million. The number who voted Labour in the 2010 general election was a little over 8.6 million.
Brummer wrote a piece for the Mail defending the paper against suggestions that its attack on the Milibands was anti-semitic. He referred to the “knee-jerk anti-Zionism shown by the left”. Brummer knows better than I do that there is anti-semitism, there is anti-the-existence-of-the-state-of-Israel, there is anti-Zionism and there is anti-the-(present)-government-of-Israel and that these four stances are very different from each other. There is plenty of anti-Netanyahu sentiment on the left, that’s for sure, and most of it is among Israelis. There is anti-Zionism in the sense that many on the left deplore Israel’s unique capacity to continue to break international law (over settlements) with total impunity. But to imply that there is inbred suspicion of or even hatred of the Jews on the left is as wicked a lie as to suggest that there is similar sentiment against Islam on the right.
On the other hand, it’s disingenuous of Brummer to pretend that there is no suggestion of xenophobia in the way the Mail has characterised Ralph Miliband and, by implication, his son. As the Milibands are Jews, that xenophobia by definition shades into antisemitism. The fact that Brummer and Levy and Melanie Phillips find a happy home on the paper doesn’t cancel out that ingredient in the Mail’s stance.
As it has panned out, the Mail emerges looking distinctly queasy from this encounter. It will not have bargained for two former Thatcher ministers fiercely attacking it and defending Ralph Miliband. The statements of Brummer and Leslie look a little wary and defensive. Paul Dacre has studiedly kept his head below the parapet and been mocked for it. Readers of the paper have taken to the internet in droves to complain and scorn.
In the paper’s editorial, there was a passing remark that the Mail is not Pravda. It was a heedless thing to say. Pravda means ‘truth’.