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Labour keeps up its attack on the Daily Mail as cracks appear in the paper's defence

Deputy editor Jon Steafel admits that it was an "error of judgement" to feature a picture of Ralph Miliband's grave with the accompanying pun "a grave socialist".

Ed Miliband speaks during a Q&A with party members at the Labour conference in Brighton last week. Photograph: Getty Images.

The first cracks are beginning to appear in the Daily Mail's defence of its smearing of Ralph Miliband. The paper's deputy editor Jon Steafel made a rare public appearance on last night's Newsnight and conceded that it may have been an "error of judgement" to feature a picture of Miliband's grave with the accompanying pun "a grave socialist".

It was a redoubtable Alastair Campbell who led the charge on the programme, declaring: "You [Emily Maitlis] said the Mail is a formidable opponent. The Mail is not a formidable opponent because it's run by a bully and a coward and, like most cowards, he's a hypocrite as well. Paul Dacre hasn't got the guts to come on this programme and defend something that I know Jon Steafel believes is not defensible."

He added: "These people do not believe in genuine debate. If you do not conform to Paul Dacre's narrow, twisted view of the world as all of his employees, like Steafel, have to do, you get done in. All I say to all of the politicians in Britain is that once you accept you're dealing with a bully and a coward, you have absolutely nothing to fear from them."

Confident that the public's sympathies lie with Ed Miliband, Labour has kept up its attack on the paper. A spokesman said last night:

The deputy editor of the Daily Mail tonight admitted that it was an "error of judgement" to publish a picture of Ralph Miliband's grave accompanied by a crude pun. The newspaper should now apologise. 

We continue to believe that the article headlined "the man who hated Britain" and a subsequent article which described Ralph Miliband's legacy as "evil" were smears. The deputy editor of the Daily Mail showed tonight he could not justify either of them. 

Several commentators have pointed out, as Dan Hodges did when I appeared with him on BBC News last night, that Miliband's frequent references to his father invite scrutiny of his views. But while true, this does not give the Mail a licence to print lies about him ("the man who hated Britain").

In today's Guardian, Miliband's biographer Michael Newman, whose book was used as the basis for the attack, writes: "he devoted himself to building his life here, and this was cemented by his marriage in 1961 to Marion Kozak (another Jewish survivor, who had been hidden in Poland during the war), and the birth of their two sons later in the decade. Subsequently, the only significant amounts of time he spent abroad were in teaching in North American universities, where he went almost every year from the late 1970s until shortly before his death in 1994, and where he usually felt quite homesick.

"He clearly had great affection for Britain, despite all his criticisms he voiced about its class structure, and he would devote the majority of his writing and teaching to the analysis of British politics, particularly in such classic works as Parliamentary Socialism (1961) and Capitalist Democracy in Britain (1982). And his own periodic political activity was also in a British context."

To suggest that Ed Miliband relishes this fight for political reasons, as some have done, is absurd. He is a son defending his father from a vile and hurtful attack. But the row has become a demonstration of the "leadership and character" he spoke of in his speech last week. While too often politicians have remained silent when they and their families have been smeared, Miliband has chosen to confront Dacre.

The Mail gave the game away in its editorial yesterday when it referred to Miliband's support for a new form of media regulation. But the irony is that it is smears like the Mail's that, more than anything, undermine the cause of a free press.