December 11, 2013
Mail undermines confidence in press
Report from UK for the Herald
The tabloid media is often referred to as the gutter press because it is assumed there are no lows to which these newspapers will not stoop. However, the role of the tabloids has always been essential in British society, providing a counterpoint to the establishment views published by the leading broadsheets. The tabloids represent a nexus with the people of Britain, ensuring that their influence on contemporary political discourse is not negligible.
However, the Daily Mail’s attempts to dictate thought by setting the agenda have seen the newspaper court trouble in the past. This tendency to stir trouble has been tempered by the fact that the Mail is currently the best-selling newspaper in the United Kingdom. The people, apparently, are or were on its side. Nevertheless, the decision last week to publish an article about the deceased father of a current leading politician under a provocative headline has, by all accounts, backfired.
The attack on Ed Miliband’s father Ralph as “the man who hated Britain” has had such spectacularly negative effects for the Mail that it is difficult to interpret why the article was published. On the one hand, it has lifted the rock on the Mail’s internal hierarchy and organization, revealing worrying levels of political in-fighting.
However, launching the Ralph Miliband assault just one week before the Privy Council meet to discuss press regulation has left many scratching their heads. Was this an unhappy cock-up, a show of strength, or planned self-immolation?
The man most in the spotlight, apart from Ralph Miliband, is Paul Dacre. The long-serving editor of the Daily Mail is no stranger to controversy, and his bullish form of leadership has been much commented on in the past. The Financial Times reported on October 4 that in a 2002 interview, Dacre referred to himself as a “big-mouthed, loud-mouthed tyrant.”
The decision to take on the Labour leader has pushed this stubbornness to the fore: the Daily Mail refused to apologize for the article, although some Mail hacks claimed the headline was a mistake and that a crucial question mark had not made the final draft.
Whether the attack on Miliband was intentional or not, the article firmly placed the spotlight on the Daily Mail and how it works. Countless articles have been written in the last week about the leadership structure at the Mail, its internal rivalry with its sister paper the Mail on Sunday and increasingly influential website MailOnline. The Mail on Sunday, whose editor Geordie Grieg is widely considered to be Dacre’s successor-in-waiting when the Mail editor, 64, retires, has been working hard to establish a difference between the two.
This is clear from its reaction to scandals as well as its journalism: when MoS journalists attempted to sneak into a memorial service for Miliband’s uncle on October 3, Grieg reacted angrily, apologized profusely and suspended the journalists involved. Compared with Dacre’s silence over the last seven days, these actions speak volumes.
The enhanced public focus on the “shadowy” Paul Dacre has also seen a few attempts at score-settling. Former Labour spin doctor and Mirror journalist Alistair Campbell took to Newsnight on October 1 to vociferously berate John Steafal, deputy editor of the Mail, while Lord Alan Sugar has called for Dacre’s resignation. It is fair to say that the Mail’s editor is not the most loved on Fleet Street, and his silence denotes a preference for self-preservation rather than self-defence.
The assault on Miliband also encouraged many commentators to reproduce articles linking Viscount Rothermere, the grandfather of the Lord Rothermere that currently owns the Mail, with Hitler. The infamous “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!” from the Mail’s article calling for support of Nazism in 1934, has been oft-mentioned over recent days. It is speculated that the present Lord Rothermere is not best pleased.
The other problem for the Mail is that this development undermines its newly won position as Britain’s best-selling paper. Until recently, this was a position held firmly by The Sun, but the legal travails and criminal behaviour of News International journalists has brought public confidence in the daily to an all-time low, particularly following the dissolution of News of the World.
The Mail has apparently taken a punt based on its own presumed popularity, thinking itself in a strong enough position to evoke the dead parent of a politician while still courting public enthusiasm. This is an incredibly bold move, and one that clearly has not paid off. The tabloid now runs the risk of putting itself in the same category as The Sun; to have done so voluntarily is baffling.
The timing of the article is also confusing. Why publish the article now, rather than wait for a week or so, or even not at all? An attack on a Labour politician by a right-wing newspaper is not surprising, regardless of its foundations, but lashing out just before a crucial week for the future of press regulation has put the Mail at the centre of attention.
With the appearance of Lord Justice Leveson before the Privy Council subcommitte today, the long debate on whether the press should be allowed to continue regulating itself or face government regulation should draw to a close, it is hoped. A decision is to be made regarding the present Press Complaints Commission, which would either see the PCC beefed up under a government-backed proposed Royal Charter, or replaced with a different industry-based watchdog, which the press is putting forward.
Now, however, the backdrop will not be one of compromise, but of conflict. When arguments are made at the council this week by supporters of the proposed Royal Charter, backed by many politicians but effectively a call for government intervention in the press, it will not come as a surprise if the Mail and its actions are not mentioned as prime examples of why such regulation is needed. In its single-minded attack on Miliband, the Mail has single-handedly set the agenda and it would be hard to argue against regulation if this is what a free press is capable of.
Reports yesterday would seem to confirm that the sub-committee has already decided to reject the news industry’s proposed regulatory system, with some commentators hinting that newspapers could seek to form a breakaway framework. Speaking to the BBC yesterday, Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander, who is chairing the sub-committee, described the regulation situation as “coming to a head,” without giving too much away.
Culture Secretary Maria Miller started the ball rolling in this regard with her comments in the House of Commons on the cross-party committee yesterday, in which she announced that a decision on the exact form the new charter would take was to be delayed until October 30. The decision to reject the industry’s proposal cannot have been helped by the Mail’s courting of publicity in the last week.
This unnecessary show of strength therefore represents a gamble at many levels: for the newspaper itself, in terms of its relevance and relationship with its readership; for Dacre, in an increasingly shaky position at the top of the Mail tree; and for the press in the UK.
Freedom of the press is an essential pillar of a free and fair society, but the actions of certain sectors of the media in the last ten years have provided the best argument for regulation.
One conclusion that can be drawn from the Mail’s activities in the last eight days, if not before, is that the tabloid is not only committed to participating in the debate on press freedom, but is also keen to be freely debated in the press. Its move to set the agenda and report on what it believed its public wanted to know was ill-conceived, poorly timed and indefensible.