As the Daily Mail and Guardian slug it out over MI5 and press reform, who really hates Britain?

Even the editor of the Mail seems less than confident about 'the man who hated Britain' now. Meanwhile, the Guardian featured "the world's leading editors" in a piece that failed to include a single journalist employed by Rupert Murdoch.

“Never explain, never apologise” is an injunction usually attributed to the Oxford don Benjamin Jowett. The conjunction of the two verbs is important. To explain is to go halfway towards apologising. That is why, to my mind, an article by the Daily Mail’s editor, Paul Dacre, published in both the Mail and the Guardian on 12 October, deserves closer study than it has so far received.

On a superficial reading, Dacre’s piece was another rant against the Mail’s usual enemies: the BBC, the liberal left, the “metropolitan classes” and the “Twitter mob” which, at 500 million users, is certainly some mob. But the first third was devoted to the Mail article on the late Ralph Miliband, headlined “The man who hated Britain”. Dacre wrote: “Yes, the Mail is happy to accept that in his personal life Ralph Miliband was . . . a decent and kindly man . . . he cherished this country’s traditions of tolerance and freedom . . . yes, the headline was controversial . . . may indeed seem over the top.”

I have wrenched Dacre’s words out of context (a former Mail executive once told me I should have been a tabloid hack) and my dots conceal some hefty “buts”. Nevertheless, the passages quoted and the space devoted – in the Mail’s prime Saturday features slot – to a rather tortured explanation of why the Miliband article was published suggest he was rattled by the reaction to it. Dacre prides himself on knowing the mind of “Middle England”. If he felt the need to explain, perhaps he thinks the Mail got it a tiny bit wrong.

Snowden storm

The article was odd in another respect: by then, the Mail itself had moved the debate on. On 9 October, quoting from a speech by the MI5 head, Andrew Parker, it splashed across its front page allegations that the Guardian had “handed a gift to terrorists” by publishing documents from the former CIA and US National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden. That day and the next, it argued the paper had “given succour to our country’s enemies and endangered all our lives”. The Guardian responded with the views of “the world’s leading editors” who agreed the revelations were “important for democracy”. Given that the said editors did not include any employed by Rupert Murdoch –one editor would have been sufficient, since, in a journalistic equivalent of what physicists call quantum entanglement, they all hold identical views – it seemed a somewhat biased sample.

In a leader, the paper welcomed “the debate”. But there was not much of one in its own pages.

Yet I am inclined to give the Guardian the benefit of any doubt. Having worked many years ago on an investigation into Kim Philby, the “third man”, I am instinctively sceptical of security-service claims that we will all be found dead in our beds unless they closely guard details of how they are “keeping us safe”. In the cold war, we knew nothing but, thanks to Philby and others, the Russians knew nearly everything.

Spies like us

The people who run MI5 are bureaucrats. It is a Mail article of faith that such people are lazy, good-for-nothing time-servers, guilty of milking the taxpayer and covering up blunders and misdemeanours. Why should spies – untrustworthy people by definition – be spared the Mail’s usual hostility towards public servants?

The Mail happily accepts the security services’ line that only they can judge what is safe to publish. “How, in the name of sanity,” it asks, can Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian’s editor, know what will endanger lives? “He’s a journalist, not an expert on security.”

Indeed, and nor is Dacre an expert on medicine, education, child protection or most other subjects on which his paper passes trenchant judgement every day. But journalists can talk to experts, as Rusbridger did – although, come to think of it, “experts” are yet another category of person that the Mail denigrates.

Freed or gagged?

Even the normally calm Jonathan Freedland rambles in the Guardian about how the press regulation agreed by politicians “will hand a gag” to the state’s “most secretive elements”, allowing them to “hound” Rusbridger “for revealing that all of us are watched around the clock”.

Let’s be clear. The proposed regulatory system permits no pre-publication censorship and creates a bewildering network of bodies to insulate judgements on the press from political influence. To alter the royal charter that underpins the legislation, ministers would require a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament.

A simple majority, Freedland writes, could overturn that requirement. Well, yes, but so what? It needs only a simple majority to shut every newspaper in the land and fling every hack into jail.

Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail. Image: Getty

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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In her first interview of 2017, I pressed the Prime Minister for Brexit clarity

My week, including running out of cat food, reading Madeleine Thien – oh, and interviewing Theresa May on my show.

As the countdown to going live begins in your ear, there’s always a little rush of adrenalin. Especially when you’re about to launch a new Sunday morning political programme. And especially when you’re about to conduct the Prime Minister’s first interview of 2017. When you hear the words, “Cue Sophy,” there’s a split-second intake of breath – a fleeting moment of anticipation – before you start speaking. Once the show is under way, there’s no time to step back and think; you’re focused on what’s happening right now. But for that brief flicker of time before the camera trained on you goes live, you feel the enormity of what’s happening. 

My new show, Sophy Ridge on Sunday, launched on Sky News this month. After five years as a political correspondent for the channel, I have made the leap into presenting. Having the opportunity to present my own political programme is the stuff that dreams are made of. It’s a bit like having your own train set – you can influence what stories you should be following and which people you should be talking to. As with everything in television, however, it’s all about the team, and with Toby Sculthorp, Tom Larkin and Matthew Lavender, I’m lucky enough to have a great one.

 

Mayday, mayday

The show gets off to a fantastic start with an opportunity to interview the Prime Minister. With Theresa May, there are no loose comments – she is a cautious premier who weighs up every word. She doesn’t have the breezy public school confidence of David Cameron and, unlike other politicians I’ve met, you don’t get the sense that she is looking over her shoulder to see if there is someone more important that she should be talking to.

In the interview, she spells out her vision for a “shared society” and talks about her desire to end the stigma around mental health. Despite repeated pressing, she refuses to confirm whether the UK will leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. However, when you consider her commitment to regaining control of immigration and UK borders, it’s very difficult – almost impossible – to see how Britain could remain a member. “Often people talk in terms as if somehow we are leaving the EU but we still want to kind of keep bits of membership of the EU,” she said. “We are leaving. We are coming out. We are not going to be a member of the EU any longer.” Draw your own conclusions.

 

Women on top

This is probably the kind of thing that I should remain demurely quiet about and allow other people to point out on my behalf. Well, screw that. I think it’s fantastic to see the second female prime minister deciding to give her first interview of the New Year to the first woman to front a Sunday morning political show on television. There, I said it.

 

Escaping the bubble

In my view, every journalist should make a New Year’s resolution to get out of London more. The powerful forces that led to the political earthquake of 2016 came from outside the M25. Every week, I’ll be travelling to a different part of the country to listen to people’s concerns so that I can directly put them to the politicians that I interview. This week, it was Boston in Lincolnshire, where the highest proportion of people voted to leave the European Union.

Initially, it was tricky to get people to speak on camera, but in a particularly friendly pub the Bostonians were suddenly much more forthcoming. Remain supporters (a minority, I know) who arrogantly dismiss Leave voters as a bunch of racists should listen to the concerns I heard about a race to the bottom in terms of workers’ rights. Politicians are often blamed for spending too much time in the “Westminster bubble”, but in my experience journalists are often even worse. Unless we escape the London echo chamber, we’ll have no chance of understanding what happened in 2016 – and what the consequences will be in 2017.

 

A room of one’s own

Last December, I signed a book deal to write the story of women in politics. It’s something I’m passionate about, but I’ll admit that when I pitched the idea to Hachette I had no idea that 2016 would turn out to be quite so busy. Fitting in interviews with leading female politicians and finding the time to write the damn thing hasn’t been easy. Panic-stricken after working flat out during the EU campaign and the historic weeks after, I booked myself into a cottage in Hythe, a lovely little market town on the Kent coast. Holed up for two weeks on my own, feeling a million miles away from the tumultuous Westminster, the words (finally) started pouring on to the page. Right now, I’m enjoying that blissful period between sending in the edited draft and waiting for the first proofs to arrive. It’s nice not to have that nagging guilty feeling that there’s something I ought to be doing . . .

 

It’s all over Mao

I read books to switch off and am no literary snob – I have a particular weakness for trashy crime fiction. This week, I’ve been reading a book that I’m not embarrassed to recommend. Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by the Canadian author Madeleine Thien, tells the haunting story of musicians who suffered during the Cultural Revolution in China. It’s also a chilling warning of what happens when anger towards the elite is pushed too far.

 

Political animals

However busy and exhilarating things are at work, my cat, Ned, will always give me a reality check. In the excitement of the first Sophy Ridge on Sunday, I forgot to get him any food. His disappointed look as he sits by his empty bowl brings me crashing back down to earth. A panicked dash to Sainsbury’s follows, the fuel warning light on all the way as I pray I don’t run out of petrol. Suddenly, everything is back to normal.

“Sophy Ridge on Sunday” is on Sky News on Sundays at 10am

Sophy Ridge is a political correspondent for Sky News.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge