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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John Major's double warning for Theresa May

The former Tory Prime Minister broke his silence with a very loud rebuke. 

A month after the Prime Minister stood in Chatham House to set out plans for free trading, independent Britain, her predecessor John Major took the floor to puncture what he called "cheap rhetoric".

Standing to attention like a weather forecaster, the former Tory Prime Minister warned of political gales ahead that could break up the union, rattle Brexit negotiations and rot the bonds of trust between politicians and the public even further.

Major said that as he had been on the losing side of the referendum, he had kept silent since June:

“This evening I don't wish to argue that the European Union is perfect, plainly it isn't. Nor do I deny the economy has been more tranquil than expected since the decision to leave was taken. 

“But I do observe that we haven't yet left the European Union. And I watch with growing concern  that the British people have been led to expect a future that seems to be unreal and over-optimistic.”

A seasoned EU negotiator himself, he warned that achieving a trade deal within two years after triggering Article 50 was highly unlikely. Meanwhile, in foreign policy, a UK that abandoned the EU would have to become more dependent on an unpalatable Trumpian United States.

Like Tony Blair, another previous Prime Minister turned Brexit commentator, Major reminded the current occupant of No.10 that 48 per cent of the country voted Remain, and that opinion might “evolve” as the reality of Brexit became clear.

Unlike Blair, he did not call for a second referendum, stressing instead the role of Parliament. But neither did he rule it out.

That was the first warning. 

But it may be Major's second warning that turns out to be the most prescient. Major praised Theresa May's social policy, which he likened to his dream of a “classless society”. He focused his ire instead on those Brexiteers whose promises “are inflated beyond any reasonable expectation of delivery”. 

The Prime Minister understood this, he claimed, but at some point in the Brexit negotiations she will have to confront those who wish for total disengagement from Europe.

“Although today they be allies of the Prime Minister, the risk is tomorrow they may not,” he warned.

For these Brexiteers, the outcome of the Article 50 negotiations did not matter, he suggested, because they were already ideologically committed to an uncompromising version of free trade:

“Some of the most committed Brexit supporters wish to have a clean break and trade only under World Trade Organisation rules. This would include tariffs on goods with nothing to help services. This would not be a panacea for the UK  - it would be the worst possible outcome. 

“But to those who wish to see us go back to a deregulated low cost enterprise economy, it is an attractive option, and wholly consistent with their philosophy.”

There was, he argued, a choice to be made about the foundations of the economic model: “We cannot move to a radical enterprise economy without moving away from a welfare state. 

“Such a direction of policy, once understood by the public, would never command support.”

Major's view of Brexit seems to be a slow-motion car crash, but one where zealous free marketeers like Daniel Hannan are screaming “faster, faster”, on speaker phone. At the end of the day, it is the mainstream Tory party that will bear the brunt of the collision. 

Asked at the end of his speech whether he, like Margaret Thatcher during his premiership, was being a backseat driver, he cracked a smile. 

“I would have been very happy for Margaret to make one speech every eight months,” he said. As for today? No doubt Theresa May will be pleased to hear he is planning another speech on Scotland soon. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.