Taking on press barons isn't brave, even in the Sir Humphrey sense

Ed Miliband didn't entirely chose to fight with the 'Mail' but has come out of it better than Paul Dacre. Whether voters will notice is another story

Share

Ed Miliband cannot shake off the legacy of Labour's civil war. No, not that civil war. I mean the division among the Blairites. Alastair Campbell was always straining at the leash to be allowed to attack the Daily Mail, but Tony Blair wouldn't let him. Blair shared Campbell's frustration, but never allowed emotion to overrule his cost-benefit analysis. He thought Labour would come off worse if he fought back against the Mail campaign against him and his wife.

In this, he was fighting the last war, namely that between Neil Kinnock and Rupert Murdoch. Under Kinnock – although it was against Kinnock's own instinct – the Labour Party had boycotted News International in solidarity with the print unions over the move to Wapping. This sanction was counter-productive: it ended in the grotesque chaos of Kinnock's head in a light bulb on the front of The Sun on polling day.

Blair once went to the Press Complaints Commission, over reports in 2002 that he sought a more prominent role in the Queen Mother's funeral, but it did him no good. People who disiked him thought he had, people who liked him did not care, and no one noticed that the PCC found that he had not.

Blair resolved to avoid repeating that mistake, and tried to hold Campbell back against the BBC over the allegation that the Iraq dossier had been "sexed up". But he seethed with resentment, at the Mail in particular, and wanted to tell it how he saw it – that the British press was a "feral beast" – before he left office. When it came to it, however, he chickened out. Instead of the Mail, he had a go at The Independent, a poor proxy, for being a "viewspaper not a newspaper". It was not his finest hour. And it did nothing to soften the Mail's hostility towards him.

So Ed Miliband, refighting the last war again, decided that it makes no difference. Appeasement, confrontation: Paul Dacre will hate you anyway and so you might as well take Campbell's line rather than Blair's. At least that way you get Campbell on TV, denouncing Dacre as a bully and a coward forputting up his deputy on Newsnight, and bringing good cheer to many Labour-leaning viewers.

Actually, Miliband and Blair were both right. Blair saw the chance to neutralise the Conservative press before the 1997 election, and he took it. Without conceding anything, he impressed Murdoch with his anti-establishment, modernising spirit; and he did better than he thought possible, securing the endorsement of The Times and The Sun. He ingratiated himself with Lord Rothermere, father of the present owner of the Mail group, who came out for Labour, although his papers continued to support the Tories. For a long time, though, the Mail titles handled the popular Blair with care.

Miliband is in a different position. By defeating his brother, he lost Labour's main chance of securing the support of the Murdoch newspapers. Thus there was nothing to be lost and public favour to be gained by demanding an inquiry into the phone-hacking scandal that started with the News of the World. There was little "brave" about "standing up to" a media proprietor who would oppose him anyway. And nothing of value was achieved by the Leveson inquiry, as the sub-committee of the Privy Council will confirm when it considers the latest spatchcock mechanism for press regulation this week. What was brave, in the Sir Humphrey sense, was to adopt an anti-business anti-free-market position that would ensure no business leaders, including Murdoch, would support him in the first place.

Miliband's war against Dacre and Rothermere is different. He had no choice when the Mail last weekend described his father as "The Man Who Hated Britain". He wrote a mild response pointing out that his father had fought for this country, and he can have had no idea that Dacre would publish it alongside an aggressive repetition of the original charge.

On balance, Miliband emerges better than Dacre from this battle he didn't entirely choose. The YouGov focus group conducted for The Times confirms that most people think Miliband was right to stand up for his father and that the Mail's journalism is suspect. That will probably outweigh the effect of reminding us that he is the son of a Marxist professor who might therefore be a bit out of touch. But these are not opinions that change perceptions of Miliband's character much, and they won't affect how people vote.

The transcript of that focus group of eight floating voters in marginal seats reveals that they had heard of Miliband's dispute with the Mail, could "understand him wanting to speak out" and yet none of them gave him credit for being "brave". And why should they? Miliband's great act of defiance of Murdoch over phone hacking produced not a blip on the political blip-o-meter.

Even more worrying for Labour, all the members of the focus group were sceptical about his plan to freeze energy prices, apart from one who thought it was a good idea but said, "I'm not sure he could deliver it", and they all quite liked what they saw of David Cameron's party conference speech.

twitter.com/@JohnRentoul

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' is now lying on its back  

Tory modernisation has failed under David Cameron

Michael Dugher
Russian President Vladimir Putin 'hits his foes where it hurts'  

Dominic Raab: If Western politicians’ vested interests protect Putin, take punishment out of their hands

Dominic Raab
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform