The Daily Mail’s smear was tasteless, but consensus is needed on regulation

Two weeks ago I wrote about press regulation and the Daily Mail’s story about Ralph Miliband for the Scottish student newspaper The Journal. I’ve reproduced my article in full below.

Last month The Daily Mail ran an article that characterised Ralph Miliband as ‘The Man Who Hated Britain’. Ralph was, of course, father to current Labour leader Ed, and the implication was that these views have been passed down to his son.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

In response, Ed argued that his father loved Britain; it gave him sanctuary as a refugee fleeing the Nazis. He repaid it by fighting in the Navy in World War Two.

The Mail’s claims were based on little more than a diary entry that made passing mention of the suspicion he detected towards French people when he first arrived as a 17 year old. It would be wrong to judge anyone on the basis of what they thought as a teenager, and it would be equally wrong to use this to draw conclusions about their children.

And not only was the story inaccurate – it was tasteless. Alongside the article, the paper’s website carried a picture of Ralph Miliband’s gravestone, accompanied by a tasteless pun about him being a ‘grave socialist’.

It is true that Ralph Miliband had staunchly left wing views, and it’s fair to assume that Ed was exposed to these when growing up. But as an adult and leader of my party, he has chosen a different path. Where Ralph saw capitalism as inherently unjust, Ed believes in responsible capitalism.

So why is this spat important? Well, it takes place against the backdrop of the continuing debate over press regulation.

Following the revelations that the News of the World hacked the phones of Milly Dowler and the parents of Madeleine McCann, the independent Leveson inquiry concluded that there should be ‘a genuinely independent regulator with effective powers to protect and provide redress for the victims of abuse’.

Parliament has now agreed a Royal Charter that should achieve this. It establishes a ‘recognition body’ that will ensure the independence, from both Government and the press, of the new regulator. In turn the regulator will be able to direct apologies and corrections of equal prominence, provide an arbitration service, a prompt complaints system and levy fines of up to £1 million.

While this system was endorsed by Hacked Off, the press itself has argued that it gives politicians ‘an unacceptable degree of interference’. They have come forward with their own Royal Charter, but this was rejected last week by the Privy Council, the body of senior MPs that will ultimately ratify any new system.

Some have argued that the conduct of the Daily Mail in recent weeks justifies imposing the Royal Charter agreed by parliament and Hacked Off, regardless of objections from the press. I think this would be a mistake.

A free press is one of the essential tenets of our democracy, and I have no problem with politicians’ views being scrutinised. In fact, I think it’s essential, as it ensures we do as good a job as possible.

But while I am clear that the Mail went too far, I also believe that, as Lord Leveson said, whatever system is put in place has to have the support of all parties. Using the behaviour of one publication as an excuse for implementing a particular system would make getting that support more – not less – difficult.

In the aftermath of Leveson’s report, there were major differences between campaigners and the three main political parties, but, through a process of negotiation, these were resolved. I hope that through open and honest negotiation with the press over the coming months, this progress can continue, and a single Royal Charter can be agreed. The Daily Mail’s decision to smear Ralph Miliband should not be allowed to prejudice these discussions.