In April 1989, the Sun published the infamous “The Truth” front-page slander of the Hillsborough tragedy and are still boycotted in Liverpool. It ought to have been a tremendous lesson to the tabloid industry that you can only go so far in peddling hate before you oversell it.
On Saturday 28th September, the Daily Mail published an article about Ralph Miliband. There were two problems with the article: the first, that it wasn’t true, was no different from any other smears the Daily Mail has cooked up in the past.
The second, that it had been published purely to traduce a dead man because he was the father of the current Labour party leader Ed Miliband, was so clear that even the usual supporters of Daily Mail politics found themselves choking on it: of the entire Conservative cabinet, only Michael Gove – who used to work for Rupert Murdoch at the Times and whose wife writes for Paul Dacre at the Daily Mail – defended the Mail: every other Conservative minister from David Cameron downward admitted that if that had been his father, subjected to Daily Mail attack after his death, they’d… well… they wouldn’t have been happy about it. Contemptuously, the Mail – and all the Mail employees, from Paul Dacre downward – have refused to apologise, claiming they were entirely justified in their smears of Ralph Miliband.
Ralph Miliband was born in Belgium in 1924: he came to the UK in 1940 as a refugee from Nazi persecution, one of the Jewish refugees that the Daily Mail railed about back then when the first Lord Rothermere, friend of the Blackshirts, was running the paper. Ralph Miliband died on 21st May 1994 – Ed Miliband was elected leader of the Labour party on 25th September 2010. As Jonathan Freedland noted, there is a whiff of anti-Semitism about the attack on Ralph Miliband and his son.
The Mail on Sunday sent a journalist to gatecrash a family memorial service to ask Miliband family members for comments on the story, and when this headlined the MoS editor Geordie Grieg apologised, wisely cast blame on two lowly journalists and declared he was holding a full investigation to find out how it could possibly have happened that the MoS could have done such a thing.
People were reacting. There were calls for a boycott. Suggestions that regular advertisers in the Mail should be asked if they really wanted to associate themselves with that kind of thing.
Conservative councillor Nigel Fletcher happened to get a standard invitation to advertise his business in the Mail, and as he told HuffPostUK:
“I am frankly stunned by how much attention this has received. It was only intended as a riposte I thought my Twitter followers might find amusing.
“I was appalled by the tasteless slur on Ed Miliband’s father, but it is only the latest in a long line of offensive articles the Mail has published.
“Even setting aside my own views, we are a cross-party think-tank, and advertising with a paper that has upset so many people across the political spectrum would not make sound business sense.
“They are free to publish what they want, but as a Tory believer in the free market I also have the freedom to take my business elsewhere.”
And that was where things stood on Thursday evening, when Quentin Letts, the Mail’s political sketchwriter, had agreed to appear on Question Time. (Paul Dacre, one may safely assume, was washing his dog that night, or taking his hair for a walk.)
But on Question Time that evening, he shredded the Mail. And – watch to the end – the audience didn’t merely applaud – they cheered. They were delighted with what Mehdi Hasan had to say about the Daily Mail.
That delight ought to scare Paul Dacre and Lord Rothermere, because if a general audience in Birmingham is happy to see the Daily Mail get ripped to shreds – has the hate-peddling, the Mail’s stock-in-trade, finally been oversold?
That was Thursday night. On Friday morning Mehdi Hasan inquired of Twitter “Should I now await the inevitable hatchet job on me in the Mail?”
He didn’t have long to wait. Later that day, as Will Heaven helpfully summarised in his Daily Telegraph blog, the Deputy Political Editor of the Daily Mail, Tim Shipman, leaked a letter that Mehdi Hasan had written to the Daily Mail in 2010 when he was hoping for work with them as a freelance journalist.
We all know the kind of letter you write to a prospective employer when you’re looking for work. You praise the company, you indicate you’d be delighted to get a job with them, and you assure them you consider them admirable. That was in 2010.
Let’s remember too, what the Daily Mail did for the Stephen Lawrence investigation and throughout the case. The famous “Murderers” headline above the six men who were alleged to have killed Stephen Lawrence is what drew public attention to the case – a black teenager killed, the Metropolitan police indifferent, the suspects walk free.
And Doreen Lawrence, Stephen’s mother said the landmark front page of the Daily Mail on 14 February 1997 branding five suspects as “Murderers” made the case matter to the whole country.
Her former husband said he was in Jamaica when the paper ran that highly risky story inviting the suspects to sue if they were not the killers.
The Daily Mail got away with it: in essence it was no different to what they usually do, except that in this instance – stopped clock – they were right. That 1997-2012 saga of justice delayed and denied and finally won, is a compelling narrative and could justly have won the Mail a degree of sympathy with Mehdi Hasan.
Such complexity is impossible on Twitter, and of course a man like Piers Morgan wouldn’t even try:
— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) October 4, 2013
Of course the problem particularly is that there’s a general understanding that applications for employment are confidential. It’s clear that the positive audience reaction to Mehdi Hasan’s rip has made Paul Dacre very, very angry: too angry for it to occur to him that perhaps this wasn’t the wisest of attacks.
— Jonathan Haynes (@JonathanHaynes) October 4, 2013
Daily Mail respond to allegation that they engage in ad hominem attacks using shady methods, with an ad hominem attack using shady methods.
— Alex Andreou (@sturdyAlex) October 4, 2013
Just Christ though Daily Mail, if you must do hatchet jobs on people can you at least make them subtle and not so clumsy? #notliketheolddays
— Mark Ferguson (@Markfergusonuk) October 4, 2013
Incidentally, there’s some explanation for why Mehdi Hasan was quite willing to write for the Mail in 2010 – they do have left-wing columnists now and then, and no professional journalist can hope to work all or even most of the time for an employer who matches their political views exactly – but by 2013 he felt differently.
Almost exactly three years ago [in 2009], I rang Peter Hitchens, the Mail on Sunday columnist, who is a friend of a friend, to ask his advice. A right-wing, anti-Islam blog had edited together, totally out of context, various quotes from me speaking in front of a group of British Muslim students in Manchester and made me look like an ultra-Islamist loon. Would the right-wing tabloid press jump on this “story”, I wondered? Would I end up appearing on the pages of, say, the Mail, under the headline of ‘Extremist!”? Don’t be silly, replied Hitchens, I don’t think anything you’ve said is worthy of publication in a national newspaper. You’ve got nothing to worry about so you should just calm down.
Fast forward three years [August 2012]: imagine my surprise to discover that a man named Peter Hitchens has produced a column in the Mail on Sunday attacking me over those very same out-of-context quotes.
There’s now a game you can play to find out if you are hated by the Daily Mail. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that you probably are.
That Mehdi Hasan didn’t realise what the Mail was like until they went for his throat: well, many people don’t. From the audience laughter on Thursday, most people know it now.
How long can you go on selling hate to the British public when so many of your potential customers know they are the people the Mail hates?
If @mehdirhasan is a hypocrite, then Quentin Letts is worse. He actually takes money from the BBC, which he despises. Apparently.
— John O'Shea (@politicalhackuk) October 4, 2013
Will Mail be emptying more emails onto Twitter, or is Medhi just a punishment beating to warn off others?
— Alison Charlton (@chuzzlit) October 4, 2013
— Marcus Brigstocke (@marcusbrig) October 4, 2013