The Daily Mail inflames British debate over press regulation

The tabloid picked the wrong time to start squabbling with politicians

On the eve of a crucial meeting of Members of Parliament (MPs) to discuss press regulation, The Daily Mail has become embroiled in a dispute with Labour Party leader Ed Miliband over allegations that his late father detested Britain. During the dispute, the tabloid has presented its actions as championing journalistic freedom in the face of government censorship. Ironically, the paper’s crusade may have pushed the British press even closer towards statutory regulation.

Following the Leveson inquiry last year into the News of the World phone-hacking scandal—in which more than 4,000 people are thought to have had their cellphones hacked by the now-shuttered tabloid—there have been two separate proposals for British press reform. One was drawn up by a cross-party group of MPs and the other by a coalition of newspapers including The Times, The Sun, and the Daily Mail. The lawmakers’ version would introduce more independent oversight, while the version championed by journalists would give the press greater freedom to self-regulate. Like many MPs, Ed Miliband supports the former. Longtime Mail editor Paul Dacre is the current chairman of an industry committee that writes the Press Complaints Commission code of practice for newspaper and magazine journalists—he favors self-regulation and is against any statutory control.

Both proposals were due to be debated by the privy council on Wednesday, but as the Guardian reports, the government is now expected to reject the press’ plan.

The two sides clashed a couple weeks ago, when the Mail published a profile of Ralph Miliband—a Marxist academic who died in 1994—under the inflammatory headline, “The man who hated Britain.” Ed Miliband was outraged by what he regarded as a slur on his father’s reputation and demanded the right to reply; the Mail published a heartfelt essay in which he reminded readers that his father was a Jewish refugee who volunteered to serve in the Royal Navy during World War II. However, the paper ran Miliband’s response alongside an abridged version of the original article and a heated editorial headlined “An evil legacy and why we won’t apologise”: “The father’s disdain for freedom of expression can be seen in his son’s determination to place the British Press under statutory control,” the Mail claimed, and if left unchecked, Ed Miliband would drive “a hammer and sickle through the heart of the nation.” A few days later, a reporter from The Mail on Sunday crashed a private memorial service for Miliband’s uncle and approached mourners for comments on the dispute.

The Mail’s attack on the Milibands has provoked widespread condemnation and a rare consensus across party lines. Both Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (Conservative and Liberal Democrat respectively) criticized the Mail and sympathized with Ed Miliband’s indignation. The Press Complaints Commission has received more than 300 complaints about the paper, while nearly three quarters of the British public feel it was wrong to label Ralph Miliband anti-British. The Guardian has also pointed out that the Mail is hardly in a position to criticize anyone based on ancestry, since the first Viscount Rothermere (ancestor of the paper’s current owner) supported British Fascist Oswald Mosley in the 1930s. And some Britons have taken to Twitter to ridicule the paper under the hashtag #mydadhatedbritain. (British television station Channel 4 has a roundup of some of the best responses here.)

Many feel that the Mail soured the press’ relationship with the government at a crucial moment. Cameron still hopes for a compromise with the industry, but Clegg and the Labour party are strongly in favor of the cross-party plan.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Edirin Oputu is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @EdirinOputu Tags: , , ,