Monday, 7 October 2013

The tragedy of the 'Daily Mail'

The recent furore over the Daily Mail's treatment of Ed Miliband's father is a tragedy. The family are clearly hurt. The way we speak to each other in public life has been exposed as a bit of a nasty old bear pit. But you know what? Most of all, this is a tragedy for the Daily Mail itself.

We need a lively, rumbustious, fearless press - most of all at a time when printed news circulation is in precipitous decline. The Mail has done better than most: unfortunately for them, that still means that they're losing readers hand over fist. Why else would they put so much effort into their website, showcasing photographs of celebrities with not-very-many clothes on?

Chucking mud at dead veterans of the Second World War is hardly the way to fight back. This blog is sympathetic to the difficulties of striking a balance between story-hunting and cool-headedness. Its writer has been a journalist. It's hard to write to very tight time deadlines without sometimes dropping a massive brick. Trust me. I've done it. But the Mail's desperation to grab the headlines and set the agenda has let it looking increasingly isolated these days. It's just going too far, too often.

The Mail could be so much more. So much more. Let's have a look at the original offending article, that ran under a photograph of Ralph Miliband (above) and the headline 'The Man Who Hated Britain'. It was a hatchet job, basically, and a not very interesting one at that - as even its defenders accept. It relied on a single diary entry, written by Ed Miliband's father when he was a teenager, and an assortment of other newspaper cuttings - mainly pertaining to a time when lots of other Brits and non-Brits were commenting on how much there was to loathe about the British class system and British complacency. The Mail could have chosen to mount a two-page splash debating the question - 'the man who hated Britain?' That would have been better - though still rather absurd. They could have commissioned a more sensitive, 'human' colour piece about Ralph Miliband's legacy, and got some nice quotes from friends and family - while still emphasising his leftist views. Either would have fitted the paper's agenda. Neither would have looked out of place. And both would probably have helped circulation more than this crude, nasty and vindictive piece of one-dimensionalism: an error of judgement which they continue to defend, in the teeth of public opprobrium. It would then have been far better to have printed the Labour leader's reply to their original piece without comment, and then launched a 'debate': instead, they compounded the error by talking of an 'evil legacy'. Upping the ante has made things worse - for them.

As Sunder Katwala reminds us, the Mail does have its better angels too: witness its campaign to bring Stephen Lawrence's killers to justice, or its campaigns against big business 'rip offs'. Nothing will be served by demonising your ideological opponents: isn't that what objecting to their treatment of Ralph Miliband should really mean in the first place?

When the left-wing journalist Mehdi Hasan criticised the Mail last week, he was immediately whacked by the release of a letter he'd written asking to write an occasional column for the paper. What did he say there? That the Mail has 'passion, rigour and boldness'. Okay, he was looking for some work, but in many ways Hasan was right - the Mail could and should be the source of some good old wrassles over what we are or might be as a nation. Instead they're trying to slash and burn their reputation with personal attacks. Lots of conservative commentators have said so too. The conclusion? The Daily Mail should know, and aspire to, better.

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