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

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.