Daily Star’s tacit support for EDL is no surprise

It could be a good thing – at least we now know where they stand.

Wednesday's front page of the Daily Star has been widely seen as an endorsement of the English Defence League. Roy Greenslade of the Guardian called it "a clear piece of propaganda on behalf of the EDL", while the Independent's Ian Burrell asked, "Has the Daily Star decided to back the EDL?"

It's just a coincidence, of course, that Richard Desmond should moot the EDL's spiritual home of Luton as the base for his newspapers, but it couldn't be better timing. Who knows? Maybe the EDL will hold a "Welcome to Luton" street party for Star hacks when they arrive at work for the first time in Bedfordshire.

My fellow media blogger Five Chinese Crackers expresses the view of many of us who viewed the Star as just a worthless comic and not worthy of serious criticism, saying: "I hardly ever looked at the Star, since it exists primarily as a vehicle for selling pictures of tits to stupid people," but admits we're going to have to start taking it seriously now.

This is, after all, a national newspaper – of which there are only ten – aligning itself with an organisation that many consider to be odious, hostile to freedom and deeply unpleasant. Of course, as many other bloggers have documented down the years, Daily Star headlines often bear little or no relation to the stories below, and it's a similar case with this one. The EDL boss saying "We aren't ruling it out" is alchemised into "EDL to become political party". No matter. The Star has its story, and backs it up with a remarkably chummy editorial column.

It's been coming for a while. Back in November, Hope Not Hate wrote politely to the Star asking the paper to tone down its coverage of Muslims. It came on the back of a Star poll which found that 98 per cent of readers feared Britain was becoming a Muslim state – the most recent poll found that 98 per cent of readers, perhaps not entirely unrelatedly, backed the policies of the EDL.

At the time, I looked at the reaction on nationalist and EDL message boards and blogs, and found it was highly positive. One blogger wrote, delightedly, "This is the first article I have read, from both the national and regional media, that hasn't been critical of the EDL," and hoped for more in the future. It would seem that wish has been granted.

It seems an odd decision, on the face of it, from the Star to be so matey with the EDL. Perhaps 98 per cent of Star readers really do support the EDL; and phone polls are entirely representative of a readership's feelings on any particular subject. Perhaps there is a lot of latent support for the EDL from ordinary Brits who feel angry at what they see as the Islamification of their country, based on the kind of stories they read in the Star (and elsewhere, in slightly more complicated terms). Perhaps it's just a way of targeting a narrow demographic as a way of tunnelling out of the general slump in newspaper sales, abandoning broad appeal in favour of a particular type of reader.

As I said last week, newspapers may be reflecting their readerships, but if they're just confirming prejudices rather than reporting what's actually going on, that erodes the credibility of all newspapers even more.

If you look back further, this was a newspaper that would have had a "Daily Fatwa" edition published, had it not been for a revolt by the newsroom's union chapel. So, this isn't a new flirtation, but perhaps rather a "coming out" by the Star, and perhaps is to be welcomed by the rest of us. At least we know what we're dealing with now, and it's out in the open. At least we know where they stand.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Getty Images
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Cameron needs to decide what he thinks about Russia

David Cameron's words suggest one thing, his actions quite another.

David Cameron needs to decide whether he takes Russia seriously.

He certainly talks a good game, calling Vladimir Putin to account for crimes against Ukrainian sovereignty and for supporting the wrong side in Syria, claiming credit for bolstering the post-Crimea sanctions regime, and demanding that Moscow’s behaviour change. And the new Strategic Defence & Security Review, published last week, puts Russia front and centre among the threats Britain faces.

The problem is, his government’s foreign policy seems calculated to make no one happier than Putin himself.

At fault is not a failure of analysis. It has taken Whitehall 19 months since Moscow annexed Crimea to develop a new Russia policy, replacing the old aspirations of “strategic partnership based on common values”, but the conviction that Russia be treated as a significant threat to the U.K.’s security and prosperity is solid.

Five years ago, when the coalition government published the last Strategic Defence & Security Review, Russia was mentioned once, in the context of rising global powers with whom London could partner to help solve planetary problems, from nuclear proliferation to climate change. The new SDSR tells a very different story. Russia gets 28 mentions this time around, characterised as a “state threat” that “may feel tempted to act aggressively against NATO allies.” Russia’s annexation of Crimea and instigation of a separatist civil war in eastern Ukraine are mentioned in the same sentence with Assad’s chemical weapons attacks on Syrian civilians and the rise of the Islamic State as key examples of how the world is becoming a more dangerous place.

How that threat will be countered, however, is not a question Whitehall can answer: it is a question for Westminster, and it gets to the heart of where this government sees its place in the world, and in Europe in particular. What Whitehall cannot say – but what the politicians must recognise – is this: the best bulwark against the Kremlin is a strengthened European Union, with more integrated markets and the force to push a concerted foreign policy in the Eastern Neighbourhood. And that recognition requires Cameron to decide whether Putin poses a greater challenge than Nigel Farage.

The SDSR is right to note that the danger of a military confrontation with Russia is remote. Just in case, the Government has committed to bolstering aerial defences, contributing to NATO’s rapid reaction capabilities and maintaining the sanctions regime until a full settlement is reached that restores Ukrainian sovereignty. These are all reasonable measures, which will go some distance to ensuring that Moscow understands the risks of further escalation in the near term. But they do nothing to address the longer term problem.

From a hard-security perspective, Russia is a nuisance. The real danger is in the threat Moscow poses to what the SDSR calls the “rules-based order” – that system of institutions, agreements and understandings that underpin stability and prosperity on the European continent. That order is about more than respecting national borders, important as that is. It is also about accepting that markets are impartially regulated, that monopolies are disallowed and political and economic power reside in institutions, rather than in individuals. It is, in other words, about accepting rules that are almost the polar opposite of the system that Russia has built over the past 25 years, an order based on rents, clientelism and protected competitive positions.

Russia, after all, went to war over a trade treaty. It invaded Ukraine and annexed part of its territory to prevent the full implementation of a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement that was designed to make Ukraine function more like Europe and less like Russia. From Moscow’s point of view, the European project is a very real geopolitical threat, one that promises to reduce the territory in which Russia can compete and, eventually, to increase the pressure on Russia itself to change. In somewhat less pernicious ways Moscow is seeking similarly to derail Moldova’s and Georgia’s European integration, while working hard to keep Belarus and Armenia from straying.

This is not a problem of vision or diplomacy, a failure to convince Putin of the value of the European way of doing things. For Putin and those on whose behalf he governs, the European way of doing things carries negative value. And unless the basic structure of politics and economics in Russia shifts, that calculation won’t change when Putin himself leaves the Kremlin. For the foreseeable future, Russia’s rulers will be willing to go to extraordinary lengths to prevent the widening of Europe, at the cost of instability and dysfunction in the region.

European willingness is another question. A chorus of euro=sceptics both left and right have demanded that Europe stop provoking the Russian bear, leaving the Eastern Neighbourhood countries to fend for themselves – sacrificing Kiev’s sovereignty to Moscow in order to bolster their own sovereignty from Brussels. Cracks, too, are emerging in the centre of the political spectrum: as French President Francois Hollande pledged to work with Moscow to fight ISIS in Syria, Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared that such an alliance would necessitate the lifting of sanctions on Russia, thus trading stability in Syria for instability in Ukraine.

As a member of the EU, London has a role to play. Together with Berlin, London could exert pressure on Paris and keep the margins of the political spectrum marginal. London could through its weight behind a common energy market, forcing Gazprom to play by EU competition rules. London could bolster anti-corruption systems and ensure that ill-gotten gains have no safe haven in Europe. London could insist on the legitimacy of the European project from one end of the continent to the other.

Instead, London is threatening Brexit, relinquishing any leverage over its European allies, and seeking EU reforms that would eviscerate the common energy market, common financial regulation, the common foreign and security policy and other key tools in the relationship with Russia.

In their February 2015 report on EU-Russian relations, the House of Lords raised the question of “whether Europe can be secure and prosperous if Russia continues to be governed as it is today.” To be sure, Europe can’t change Russia’s government and shouldn’t try. But by insisting on its own rules – both in how it governs its internal markets and in how it pursues its foreign policy – Europe can change the incentives Russia’s government faces.

The question, then, to Cameron is this: Whose rules would Westminster rather see prevail in the Eastern Neighbourhood, Europe’s or Russia’s?

Samuel A. Greene is Director of the King’s Russia Institute, King’s College London.