Scorpions. Great survivors. As a species they are more predator than producer. You have to handle them with care.
You know the old fable about the scorpion and the frog? The frog wants to cross the river, and the scorpion asks for a lift. “Don’t sting me,” the frog says. “Why would I do that?” the scorpion asks. “If I sting you we’ll both die.” Half way across the river the scorpion duly stings the frog. “Why did you do that?” the frog asks with its dying breath. “It’s my nature,” says the scorpion, as it drowns.
Over the past three days Ed Miliband has had his own encounter with the scorpion-like mentality of the Daily Mail. Apparently conceding that Saturday’s feature on Ralph Miliband had overstepped the mark – the piece was headlined “The man who hated Britain” and told a story that “should disturb everyone who loves this country” – the Mail granted an extremely rare right of reply, which Miliband duly accepted.
He wrote a clear and moving defence of his late father. “He loved Britain for the security it offered his family and the gentle decency of our nation,” Miliband wrote. “When we went on holiday abroad, the part he would look forward to the most was coming home… My Dad loved Britain, he served Britain, and he taught both David and me to do the same.”
Which would all have been fine, had the Mail not chosen both to reprint the original smearing, tendentious article, and accompany it with an unapologetic leader which not only repeated Saturday’s crazed allegations, but added some new ones.
As Milband wrote in his piece: “The stakes are too high for our country for politics to be conducted in this way. We owe it to Britain to have a debate which reflects the values of how we want the country run.”
That’s true. But those words seem to have had little impact on the Mail. At the end of its leader the paper revealed what was perhaps its true motivation. Miliband is one of those figures trying to restrict press freedom, as the Mail sees it. This treatment – attempted character assassination – of his late father was really just another post-Leveson outburst from a bully that had not enjoyed being stood up to.
It would be comical if it weren’t so serious – and in such bad taste. The paper that protests loudest of all about the freedom of the press is relaxed about smearing the dead and attributing views to someone that he clearly did not hold. One minute it appears to be offering a right of reply in good faith. The next it attempts to trash the very person who has provided some decent (free!) copy.
In one sense this is all a compliment to Ed Miliband. If he weren’t seen as a threat by the right, it is unlikely such excessive treatment would be handed out. Daily Mail executives have done the maths, looked at the Conservative front bench (and the ever-perky Mr Farage), and concluded that Labour might very well win. Hence their vicious over-reaction. But you suspect that even a lot of Daily Mail readers will find this sort of spiteful behaviour hard to accept.
It is clear what sort of (long) election campaign we can expect to see. Several papers dread a Labour victory, not simply for respectable political reasons, but because they fear a loss of power and influence. The proprietors are not happy, and proprietors must be kept happy by their staff. A semi-coordinated effort to prevent Labour coming to power will be made. (Damian McBride has said that one newspaper was offering him even more money to delay publication of his book until the spring of 2015.) Even yesterday, as the Mail prepared its attack on Miliband, George Osborne was accusing the Labour leader of having Marxist instincts. Sheer coincidence I’m sure.
The traditional advice is not to go to war with anyone who buys newspaper ink in industrial quantities. And all-out war would be a waste of energy, and potentially self-defeating. But by refusing to take the Mail’s nonsense lying down, Miliband did at least signal that further inventions and distortions from any other source would be challenged vigorously. In a world of rapidly falling circulations newspapers cannot afford to display contempt for accuracy, and by extension contempt for their readers as well.
Miliband has shown courage in challenging the media in a way no other party leader in recent times has done. They will try and get him for this. But the mainstream media, and especially the papers, are nothing like the force they were even five years ago. People get their news from a variety of sources, and then share and reinforce their views on uncontrollable social media.
“Courage is reckoned the greatest of all virtues,” Dr Johnson said, “because, unless a man has that virtue, he has no security for preserving any other.” I think fortune will favour the brave, as it so often has in the past.