The Daily Mail’s attacks on Ed Miliband’s father have backfired as protests reveal a groundswell of opposition to the divisive and bigoted brand of ‘news’ that it generates

Freeing the press

The Daily Mail has long made its millions from the shameless persecution of large sections of our society. It attacks our public employees and vital institutions like the NHS, which Nigel Lawson once described as ‘the closest the English have to a religion.’ It attacks our most vulnerable, by scapegoating migrant workers, benefit claimants, working mothers and the unemployed for failing to ‘make it’ in a system that has failed them time and again. It attacks the diversity – racial, sexual, cultural and political – which centuries of British political struggle have won us the right to.

The latest vile attack was launched against Ralph Miliband, Ed Miliband’s father: a Jewish migrant and prominent academic who fled the holocaust, fought the Nazis and is no longer alive to defend himself. (Lord Rothmere, the Mail’s owner and founder, was meanwhile championing Hitler and  British fascists.) Claiming, as usual, a monopoly on ‘what Britain is about’, the Mail accused him of hating this country – simply because, in the words of Lindsey German, “he was a Marxist and wanted to change the world.”

The story was launched after the Labour leader declared his intention to axe the bedroom tax and enforce a 20-month freeze on utilities bills if he wins the next election. Never mind the misrepresentation of socialism – we’re used to it. This is a backlash against any whisper of even social democracy, and against any attempt to soften the blow of cuts and privatisation.

Enough is enough

“Enough is enough, we are not going to put up with this filfthy gutter press any longer and we are going to stand up for the values that millions of people in this country believe in… And they’re not national values, they’re values of justice and freedom and truth and equality… And the idea that anyone who stands up against the monarchy, against the House of Lords, against the class system in this country, somehow hates Britain? It’s not about Britain, it’s about the system under which we live.” – Lindsey German, outside the Daily Mail HQ.

Within this broader context, the attack on Ralph Miliband was a step too far. It has triggered an upsurge of tangible outrage against the Daily Mail, and more broadly, the results of thirty years of degradation in the British media which have left us with a news industry gutted of its public function.

Yet while certain lords and their relatively superficial press inquiries at the top of society continue to miss the point – that we’re dealing with a political crisis surrounding the purpose of the press rather than its powers – the British public have again shown themselves to be ahead of Parliament. National polls show that over 70 per cent think the Mail should apologise for its slanderous story; even a majority of its own readers disapprove.

On Sunday, successful demonstrations were organised in London, Manchester and Salford by People’s Assembly groups. Protesters burned copies of the Daily Mail and campaigners are now pressuring supermarkets to withdraw advertising from it.

The 200 strong protest outside their London HQ received a great deal of attention in the media and via social networks, and drew a broad array of speakers from the industry and leading trade unions.

The political tone for the demonstration was set by the People’s Assembly placards reading ‘Hated by the Daily Mail’ and the platform of speakers maintained targeted criticism, not of readers or  employees, but the profiteering management of the corporation itself. “I would not for a minute say that everyone who works for the Daily Mail is ignorant or bad,” stated Rabia Khan. “But if I was working from them, I would be deeply ashamed… And I would lobby to stop the racism, to stop the hate.”

Their news is bad news

The mid-1970s saw the dawn of the dark age of a new breed of tabloid journalism: owned and controlled by the rich, for the consumption and control of the poor. Since Murdoch and Thatcher’s violent attacks on the print unions in the mid-1980s, deregulation and commercialisation has been rampant in the industry. The whole sector is now infamous for the kind of bullying the Mail’s editor Paul Dacre is best known for.  Work in the industry is becoming increasingly insecure, which intimidates staff, undermines their autonomy and silences their complaints.

The media needs strong unions for the same reason we all do: to protect worker’s rights, exercise collective bargaining and fight back against worsening conditions. Furthermore, as illustrated by the string of phone hacking and other scandals, we must all fight to strengthen the unions’ ability to protect and empower whistle blowers and journalists with legal or moral objections to the work they are expected to do.

When it comes to the media, there is another much more universal interest at stake: the public interest in a media which maintains its independence from government and big business. It is the primary source of information for those who’ve left education. If schools are the most important institutions of socialisation and indoctrination in society, the media comes in a close second. As recent polls illustrate, the British public is increasingly disillusioned by the mainstream press. But without a viable alternative tabloid, more accessible than the Guardian but no less mulish, the danger is that people will simply give up. As one protester put it on Sunday:

“It’s just lies, lies, lies, all the time. So I don’t bother reading the news anymore. What’s the point?”

The point is that the Leveson Inquiry has raised an artificially framed and fairly arbitrary debate about restrictions on the press. The more important battle will be fought over the political and economic reclamation of the press by the public, as a public service. There are practices which are completely unacceptable in the pursuit of sensational headlines produced solely for the purpose of selling papers. But if those same practices reveal illegal activity on the part of those in power, or a leak that enables the public to hold the powerful to account, they become vital acts of courage.

What the News of the World put Milly Dowler’s grieving family through was inexcusable because it served no purpose but their profit margins. But if the Pentagon Papers that helped end the Vietnam War, the MP’s expenses scandal or the PRISM leaks had reached us via a phone-hacking journalist, I would be standing shoulder to shoulder with that journalist. The Daily Mail didn’t gate crash the memorial service for Ed Miliband’s uncle for the sake of speaking truth to power. They did it for profit, and no one batted an eyelid because news is now a business, protecting its educative function is paternalistic and old-fashioned and anyway, ‘there is no alternative’.

While the Daily Mail has long escaped retribution for it’s almost daily dose of hatred and jingoism, those who do the news right – like Wikileaks and Glen Greenwald – are illegally and relentlessly attacked by the highest levels of government. This is no way to uphold democratic values – it’s no way to uphold liberal values, let alone progressive ones.

Freeing the free press

It’s true that within the profit-making paradigm there is no real alternative. Papers like the Mail will necessarily continue to spread lies, generate false divisions and gag themselves on issues of public interest. What we need now is meaningful, broad-based pressure from below, a serious campaign for media reform and the formulation of independent local and international alternatives.

That process has already begun. From member-funded radical organisations like Counterfire, to international platforms like the Real News Network that run on public donations, alternative media outlets are springing up online all the time. That’s great for those of us who already see the need for them – but simply moving on and leaving the mainstream press behind is a mistake, because they monopolise the mainstream audience on behalf of an elite agenda: keeping us divided, and blaming the difference instead of power for the mess we’re in.

Journalism is not a commodity; it is a vital extension of democracy – one that has been hollowed out by the laws of the capitalist market. This extract from a Daily Mirror editorial entitled Forward With the People, run in 1945, illustrates how far we have fallen, and is an inspiring example of an alternative worth striving for:

‘There are shining victories to be won in the cause of peace and social justice. We shall reach the new freedom by not submitting to economic slavery…We stand for equal opportunities for all children, good homes and robust health for everyone, a high standard of living for all. And we challenge every vested interest that obstructs the realisation of that idea.’

Marienna Pope-Weidemann

Marienna is a socialist writer and campaigner who studied Politics & International Development at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She is a leading organiser of the Student Assembly Against Austerity. She currently works as a filmmaker for the Islam Channel.