Ed Miliband posed for a promotional photograph with a copy of The Sun just a week before he is due to meet Rupert Murdoch’s most-senior executive in the UK for dinner, The Independent has learnt.
The Labour leader was yesterday condemned by senior figures within his own party for taking in part in the stunt – designed to promote the paper ahead of the World Cup.
The Labour Mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, said the photograph “insults not only me but every person in the city” because of The Sun’s coverage of the Hillsborough disaster, while Liverpool MP Steve Rotheram said he and many other people felt “hurt” by the decision.
Even members of his own shadow cabinet declined to back him.
A spokesman for the shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham said: “Andy is not getting involved at all”.
The revelation that the photograph was taken just a week before Mr Miliband is due to have dinner with Mike Darcey, chief executive officer of The Sun’s owner, News UK, will fuel concerns among some in Labour that Mr Miliband is attempting an rapprochement with Murdoch papers ahead of next year’s General Election.
Mr Miliband took a strong stance condemning the phone-hacking scandal, but some around the Labour leader have urged him to take a more conciliatory line with the newspaper group in an attempt to minimise negative publicity in the run up to next May.
The Sun asked all the party leaders to pose with a copy of the paper, which was delivered free of charge to every postal address in the country as part of a promotional campaign.
The decision to accept was understood to have been taken by the party’s communication director in consultation with Mr Miliband.
However, such a strategy risks alienating Labour supporters – particularly in areas like Liverpool – who applauded Mr Miliband’s stand against Mr Murdoch and have urged him to ignore press criticisms. Groups representing victims and survivors of the 1989 tragedy expressed anger at Mr Miliband’s actions, one describing them as an “absolute disgrace”.
Mr Anderson, said: “Like everybody in this city I am really hurt and offended by Ed Miliband’s support for The Sun newspaper. Such clear support for that publication at any time would be wrong but at such a sensitive time is deeply shocking.”
In a piece for the website Labour List, the former shadow cabinet member Tom Watson, who was himself a victim of phone-hacking, wrote: “Ed finds himself in an unnecessary embarrassing situation, again. As any football fan will tell you, too many unforced errors ends in defeat.”
In a statement, a spokesman for the Labour leader said: “Ed Miliband was promoting England’s bid to win the World Cup and is proud to do so.
“But he understands the anger that is felt towards The Sun over Hillsborough by many people in Merseyside and he is sorry to those who feel offended.”
Party sources insisted it was not a new rapprochement and pointed to a recent interview Mr Miliband had done in The Sun where he posed with the paper’s branded taxi.