PART of the received wisdom of British journalism runs something like this:
"Hate the Daily Mail if you want, but they are brilliant at what they do." They "invest in editorial"; they understand their readers; they never give up; they have a reckless, ruthless style and a bullish charm. These pleas in mitigation have worked for decades.
They worked, more or less, when the Mail tried to influence a General Election in 1924 with the forged "Zinoviev letter". They worked when the first Viscount Rothermere was finding good things to say about that nice Herr Hitler. They worked to the benefit, time and again, of Margaret Thatcher. It might be, though, that finally the old game is up.
You don't have to be privy to the Mail's editorial thinking to grasp their basic assumption. They believe, with some justification, that they understand the fundamental prejudices of the public. People hate what the Mail hates, and vice versa. People enjoy having their hatreds shouted and confirmed. This is democracy in a big, bold sans type headline, the tyranny of the majority.
What the Mail tends to forget is that sometimes those true-born average suburban readers feel a touch of guilt when one prejudice contradicts another. Slapping down foreign Marxist types is one thing. How does that square with the venerated British sense of fair play when you pick on a dead refugee of some brilliance who fought for this adoptive country without a moment's hesitation?
In the parlance, the Mail tried last week to turn over Ed Miliband by going after his father. A columnist called Geoffrey Levy put his name to a piece designed to prove that Ralph Miliband, Marxist, scholar and Royal Navy veteran, "hated Britain" and that his son means to "bring back socialism" as an act of piety.
The Mail always turns vicious when it is worried. Since most people doubt Ed Miliband's General Election chances, a deeply unpleasant assault on his family counts as interesting. They really think that this Labour leader could win power next time? Why would that be?
Then there's the broad reaction. If even Lord Heseltine says the paper is "carrying politics to an extent that is just demeaning, frankly", it might be that the brilliant, infallible Mail has got this one utterly wrong. And why would that be?
Finally, there's Ed himself. A rule of thumb on the remnants of the British left says that if Paul Dacre goes after you, you must be doing something right. The Mail's editor, a law unto himself and a legend for fans of torrential expletives, likes to be the patriot's patriot, an English sentinel. Anyone who can confuse his journalists with paratroopers takes himself a little seriously.
So why the hatchet job? Why the fear that Miliband might be on to something? Why conclude that the latest, stumbling and conciliatory Labour leader might be a threat to Daily Mail civilisation? Because Ed might do something about the bedroom tax or the zero-hours contracts abomination? Or because the slightest attempt to shift Britain from its numbing neo-liberal slumbers has to be stopped at all costs?
That would be the best guess. Ralph Miliband, a cuddly and non-violent academic Marxist who couldn't have scared your granny off a bus, once wrote: "Exclusion of people deemed politically 'unreliable', 'unsound', potentially subversive … need not always be explicit; the important thing, from the anti-communist perspective, is that exclusion should be practised, and that it should serve as a warning to others." Ed, one imagines, has just been reminded of those words.
Ed is not a radical. Politically, he is not his father's son and makes no bones about it. What we know of his programme for government - and it isn't much - is modest indeed. Ed Miliband would like capitalism to work a little better. He would like to see ordinary people treated with just a little more fairness by the power companies or the banks. He's for "one nation" and a bit more niceness. But if anyone is up for storming the local Bastille, Ed is busy.
But he has said enough to enrage Dacre and his paras. Lovable Richard Littlejohn, that virus for which there is no known cure, has added his less-than-surprising wisdom to the argument. Give almost-Marxist Ed an inch, says the copy, and Britain will be brought to its knees. There is a note of desperation behind the shouting.
A lot of people are very close to their knees. A lot of them are learning to miss the kind of security that cradle-to-grave government used to provide. The free-market delights espoused by the Mail for decades have left its "hard-working families" with a terrifying sense of insecurity. Now along comes earnest Ed with a promise to put a brake on a few bills and Dacre's crowd, as one, lose the plot.
This is revealing, less because there is anything remotely revolutionary about the young Miliband than because it exposes right-wing bluster. They sense that common people might be beginning to catch on. A few hints of populist old Labour calls much into question.
The methods are not pretty. Even David Cameron has drawn back, no doubt on the rational grounds that the Mail has often turned on its own. Dacre will be pondering the Ukip factor as a goad for Tories. He will be wondering if the Coalition is worth his support. He will consider the issue of Europe and try to decide if there is another Tory worthy of his patronage.
It leaves all of us in this trade in an odd position. The right to a free press did not grant the Mail licence to abuse a man's dead father. The idea of free speech does not justify the making and breaking of elected politicians by newspaper editors. Those on the left will not have found much new in the monstering of Ed Miliband. But defending the old "rough and tumble" will involve new arguments.
The Mail might just have demonstrated, finally, that the old ugliness has been indulged for too long. The phone-hacking scandals left the press without a shred of public respect. Professions deemed lower than journalism are hard to name. But outright bullying, the McCarthyite exercise of raw power, is something else. Dacre and his staff have made a big mistake, I think.
People are not in the mood. They don't believe the propaganda readily, if at all. The attacks on Ed Miliband and his father reek of panic. Some Labour type wants to adjust capitalism ever so slightly and he gets hysterical slurs for his pains? The thought might be of little comfort in the Miliband household, but there is something reassuring about that.
The Labour leader should use the challenge as an opportunity. People are not as nasty as the Mail would like to believe. They will judge Miliband as the wronged party and pay a little more attention. Emboldened, he could even try bringing some socialism back to public life. But let's not get too carried away.
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