U.K. Tabloid Daily Mail Attacks Opposition Leader’s Father, Riles Up British Public

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U.K. leader of the opposition Ed Miliband delivers his keynote speech at the annual Labour Party conference in Brighton on Sept. 24, 2013

British tabloid newspaper the Daily Mail — which runs the most read online newspaper in the world, Mail Online — is facing criticism from parts of the British press and politicians following its story criticizing the late father of the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Ed Miliband.

The paper published an article on Sept. 28 by journalist Geoffrey Levy questioning whether the beliefs of Miliband’s father — Ralph Miliband, a Belgian-born Jewish academic and a leading Marxist thinker who died in 1994 — influenced the Labour leader.

In the article, headlined “The Man Who Hated Britain,” Levy picked up on a diary entry written by Ralph when he was 17. “The Englishman is a rabid nationalist. They are perhaps the most nationalist people in the world …  you sometimes want them almost to lose [World War II] to show them how things are. They have the greatest contempt for the Continent … To lose their empire would be the worst possible humiliation.” The article went on to suggest that Ed was “determined” to bring about his father’s socialist vision.

The 43-year-old Miliband responded by accusing the Mail of lying about his father. In an unusual move, according to some media analysts, the paper featured the Labour leader’s response to the story on Tuesday. “There is no credible argument in the article or evidence from [Ralph’s] life which can remotely justify the lurid headline and its accompanying claim that it would ‘disturb everyone who loves this country,'” wrote Miliband.

He wrote about how his father had joined the navy because he “was determined to be part of the fight against the Nazis and to help his family hidden in Belgium. He was fighting for Britain.”

Rather than withdrawing its original piece when it published Miliband’s reply, the Mail, which is known for its nationalist, right-wing views, republished it together with an editorial headlined: “An Evil Legacy and Why We Won’t Apologize.”

The spat has continued as senior political figures from both the left and right have either defended Miliband or defended the Mail’s right to free comment. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron commented: “All I know is that if anyone had a go at my father, I would want to respond very vigorously.” Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, speaking out on LBC radio, said, “If anyone excels in denigrating and vilifying modern Britain, it is the Daily Mail.” Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, argued that newspapers should not have to apologize for being an “effective check on the arrogance of politicians” and that politicians should not “tell editors how to do their job.”

The Mail’s editor, Paul Dacre, is known in media circles for the level of editorial independence he has in running the paper, writes media expert Roy Greenslade. According to Greenslade, for Dacre, “the political is the personal” and the paper’s targeting of the Milibands reflects its bullying methods.

Perhaps the most vociferous criticism has come from former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s former director of communications Alastair Campbell. During a debate on BBC’s Newsnight on Tuesday, Campbell confronted Jon Steafel, the deputy editor of the Daily Mail, over the article. He said the Mail represented “the worst of British values pretending to be the best” and that Dacre was “a bully and a coward.”

Though the Daily Mail continues to stand by its original piece criticizing the elder Miliband, its sister paper, the Mail on Sunday, has issued an apology to Ed after one of its reporters intruded on a private memorial service for his uncle on Wednesday. Miliband wrote to the paper’s owner, Lord Rothermere, on Thursday saying that a common line of decency had been crossed. He urged him to look into “who is responsible for the culture and practices of these newspapers which jar so badly with the values of your readers.”