Of course, as so often happens, it was the headline that caused all the trouble.
A Daily Mail analysis of the political beliefs of Ralph Miliband, father of the Labour leader Ed Miliband, however carefully and even misleadingly selected the facts, would have caused merely a stir and a shrug. That’s the sort of thing the Daily Mail does to its political opponents.
It was the headline: “The man who hated Britain” that elevated the level of offence to a different level and has led to widespread condemnation of the paper.
Even a cursory glance at the original article leads to the conclusion that the body of text and the known facts of Ralph Miliband’s life do not even begin to justify such a headline.
If the Conservatives are the self-confessed Nasty party then alas the Daily Mail is the Nasty newspaper.
This is a shame because much of its journalism is excellent and there have been many brave campaigns over the years against over-weaning social workers removing children from their parents for no good reason, against the march of political correctness in local authorities to the denouncing of those it accused of killing Stephen Lawrence.
Then the paper goes for the Big Smear with The man who hated Britain.
Unfortunately the Daily Mail is very good at the big smear – assembling a series of facts that are individually true but add up to something that is entirely misleading.
A previous lesser example involved the thoroughly decent Sir David Bell, former chairman of the Financial Times and member of Lord Justice Leveson’s advisory panel. You don’t have to agree with Sir David’s views on the future of press regulation – and I don’t – to find his portrayal as a dangerous pinko liberal because of his friends and connections to the Media Standards Trust and even Hacked Off completely ludicrous.
Endless numbers of friends of Ralph Miliband and his biographer Michael Newman have now testified that in fact he was a man who loved Britain as many refugees from Hitler have before him and acknowledged that democracy should be an integral part of the future of socialism.
Any slight justification of the headline rests almost entirely on an entry in the young Miliband’s diary aged 16 expressing distaste for British nationalism and later attacks on the class system and the more traditional British institutions. How many share such views without it being termed an “evil legacy.”
In fact The Times obituary in 1994 noted that while he remained a committed socialist “he was in no sense a rigid Marxist, never a member of the Communist Party and a strong anti- authoritarian.”
The article then segues cunningly to its primary purpose – a smear on Ed Miliband as someone keen on protecting his father’s political heritage, even though last year in an interview with the Daily Telegraph he highlighted his political differences with his father by insisting he wanted to save capitalism from itself by making it “more decent, more humane more fraternal.”
More than any other paper the Daily Mail should be careful about political smears – and naturally out came pictures of a previous Lord Rothermere posing with Hitler and the articles calling for support for the Blackshirts.
If the aim was to damage Ed Miliband then it has failed. Miliband has behaved perfectly properly in trying to defend his father against a “lie”. After the economically ridiculous freeze on energy prices this is, politically, the best week that young Miliband has had for ages.
He has even been wise enough to say this was not about regulation when he might have started issuing threats in retaliation.
Ah regulation. Unfortunately Paul Dacre, complete with a new contract, could not have chosen a worse week for his rush of poisonous blood to the head. This is the week that the Privy Council is due to rule on the two Royal Charters – the one that came out of the late night deal between Hacked Off and the politicians and that produced by the newspaper industry.
The activities of the Daily Mail could be enough to push the outcome in the direction of the politicians if it is not inevitably going in that direction anyway.
Then there is the real chance now of a dangerous stand-off between press and Parliament.
Last Friday at the MediaTel conference on the future of national newspapers, Chris Blackhurst, content director of the Independent and Evening Standard, warned of perils of a vacuum developing in advance of the start of the phone-hacking and corruption trials later this winter.
Every day that goes by with nothing happening – and little has – represents a potential threat to press freedom.
There is more than a possibility that some of the defendants will start revealing more sensational claims to try to save themselves from prison, or if not that take some of their seniors and betters with them. Already there are rumours that the sums of money spent bribing policemen for information are very many times larger than previously revealed.
It is certain however that a daily diet of lurid accusations of scandalous press behaviour from the past would still create a mood in Parliament that would open the door to cross-party legislation in the press. This would be the worst possible outcome for all concerned and that includes British democracy.
It is very late in the day but not too late for the Daily Mail, home to so many valid scoops, to apologise for a nasty headline that is not justified by the facts.