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

David Cameron shows Labour how to do it

Leftwing rhetoric masked rightwing reality in Cameron's conference speech.

“The tanks are in the kitchen,” was the gloomy verdict of one Labour staffer to a speech in which the Prime Minister roamed freely into traditional left-wing territory.

But don’t be fooled: David Cameron is still the leader of an incredibly right-wing government for all the liberal-left applause lines.

He gave a very moving account of the difficulties faced by careleavers: but it is his government that is denying careleavers the right to claim housing benefit after they turn 22.

He made a powerful case for expanding home ownership: but his proposed solution is a bung for buy-to-let boomers and dual-earner childless couples, the only working-age demographic to do better under Cameron than under Labour.

On policy, he made just one real concession to the left: he stuck to his guns on equal rights and continued his government’s assault on the ridiculous abuse of stop-and-search. Neither of these are small issues, and they are a world away from the Conservative party before Cameron – but they also don’t cost anything.

In exchange for a few warm words, Cameron will get the breathing space to implement a true-blue Conservative agenda, with an ever-shrinking state for most of Britain, accompanied by largesse for well-heeled pensioners, yuppie couples, and small traders.

But in doing so, he gave Labour a lesson in what they must do to win again. Policy-wise,it is Labour – with their plans to put rocketboosters under the number of new housing units built – who have the better plan to spread home ownership than Cameron’s marginal solutions. But last week, John McDonnelll focussed on the 100,000 children in temporary accomodation. They are undoubtedly the biggest and most deserving victims of Britain’s increasingly dysfunctional housing market. But Labour can’t get a Commons majority – or even win enough seats to form a minority government – if they only talk about why their policies are right for the poor. They can’t even get a majority of votes from the poor that way.

What’s the answer to Britain’s housing crisis? It’s more housebuilding, including more social housing. Labour can do what Cameron did today in Manchester – and deliver radical policy with moderate rhetoric, or they can lose.

But perhaps, if Cameron feels like the wrong role model, they could learn from a poster at the People’s History Museum, taken not from Labour’s Blairite triumphs or even the 1960s, but from 1945: “Everyone – yes, everyone – will be better off under a Labour government”.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.