Monthly Archives: October 2013

Ageing despot contemplates cracks forming in regime

Not Paul Dacre, but close enough

Not Paul Dacre, but close enough

All right, let’s return for a moment to the question of Paul Dacre. Not so much how he misjudged the Miliband story, but what the fallout tells us about the situation at the Mail.

Fortuitously, a new edition of one of the best books ever written about journalism has just been published. No, I don’t mean Manufacturing Consent, which has its interesting points but is somewhat handicapped by Herman and Chomsky only having the very vaguest idea of how journalism actually works. (This is less worrying from two academics than the fact that there are people who make a living in journalism who follow their analysis and don’t appear to know how journalism works. Happily, most of those people are kept on the comment pages of the Guardian and New Statesman where they can’t do much harm.)

I am of course referring to the classic Stick It Up Your Punter! by Peter Chippindale and Chris Horrie, which tells the story of the Sun during its glory days of the 1970s and 1980s, and a gripping tale it is too. The only criticism I’d make of it is the one I always make of books about Fleet Street, namely that there are too many true stories left out on the grounds that readers would never believe them. But seriously, it’s quite wonderful, and if you’ve never read it, treat yourself.

This has some relevance because, to a very large extent, it tells the story of Kelvin MacKenzie’s editorship, and it’s hard to convey to people nowadays just how much Kelvin bestrode the landscape like a colossus. He had a very sharp sense of exactly what the punters wanted; whether you liked his editorial decisions or not, he was a superb technical editor putting out a highly professional product every day; and yes, that brash flamboyance, which was so much part of 1980s culture, really put the Sun into a position of being able to dictate the news agenda. It’s never quite regained that since; the agenda-setting mantle has long since passed to the Mail, though the Sun continues to outsell it.

One of the most interesting points to consider is how often Kelvin screwed up, and sometimes disastrously, Hillsborough of course being by far the worst blot on his record, but considering the sheer number of times he was caught out publishing dodgy stories or monstering blameless members of the public, for years he seemed to lead a charmed life. If circulation was high and the finances were healthy and the Currant Bun was beating the competition, Uncle Rupert was happy and Kelvin was untouchable. Until there came a time when he wasn’t untouchable any more, when he was being caused trouble by relatively minor things that he could have shrugged off a few years previously. The point being that every regime, no matter how solid it looks on the surface, will weaken eventually. If only because the boss has been there for so long people get sick of the sight of him.

It’s a common process in politics and in many other institutions. The weakening is often hard to spot in its earlier stages. It becomes obvious when there’s blood in the water. Think of the “Back to Basics” affair, and how John Major’s government was crippled by relatively minor sexual scandals while both his predecessor and successor survived much worse.

Are we now at that point with the Dacre regime at the Mail? Dacre is not Kelvin MacKenzie, and eschewing publicity has probably helped him last as long as he has, coupled with being extremely good at what he does. Circulation is still booming, and the Mail is one of the few papers that’s still profitable. But he’s been in post for over twenty years now, and nobody lasts forever. Bearing in mind that he’ll turn 65 next month, the unthinkable scenario of the Mail without Dacre becomes quite thinkable. And since the Mail, unlike some papers, doesn’t change editors at the drop of a hat – David English helmed the paper for 21 years before Dacre took over – one could hardly blame hacks for speculating.

So there are, I understand, alliances being formed and people are moving into position for the post-Dacre era. And indeed the great man has made some concessions lately – the axing of Melanie Phillips being one gesture towards smoothing out the paper’s sharper edges. As for the Miliband story, it won’t have escaped notice that, following that Mail on Sunday reporter gatecrashing Ed’s uncle’s memorial, MoS editor Geordie Greig was very quick to apologise in a way that invites comparison with his opposite number at the daily. It’s probably fair to say, too, that Greig and Dacre are not known for being the best of buddies.

But yes, I sense weakness in the air, as much in the tone of the defence as anything. While I’m none too fond of Mehdi Hasan, for instance, devoting two pages to attacking him – well, what’s the point? From the Mail’s point of view, Hasan should be a fly to be swatted away, not a serious enemy who deserves a serious response.

Think of the timeline around Hackgate two years ago. There was an entire process of Murdoch setting off controlled explosions, getting damaging information out in vast infodumps almost too big to process, getting rid of compromised personnel, eventually closing the most compromised newspaper, all aimed at limiting the damage to the company. The ruthlessness with which he went about it indicated that he wasn’t as vulnerable as he appeared. If the Mail is going off on goose chases against enemies that ultimately don’t matter… well, perhaps its veteran editor is more vulnerable than he appears.

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A word on Comrade Ralph

Ralph Miliband lecturing in Canada in 1978.

So, the last week hasn’t been very edifying, has it? I want to give here two briefish reflections on the ongoing Mili-Mail story, one contemporary and one historical.

Firstly, I can’t for the life of me think what on earth Paul Dacre is thinking. There’s a school of thought that says he’s lost his touch, his famed sense for the worldview of the Mail reader. In this scenario, running a hatchet job on Ralph Miliband – accompanied by a certain amount of dog-whistling about rootless cosmopolitans – would be a catastrophic misjudgement similar to the Sun’s monstering of Kenny Everett when the popular TV funnyman revealed he had AIDS. This went down like a cup of cold sick with Sun readers, who had grown up with and loved Kenny, and it’s worth noting that the paper never subsequently felt able to engage in the sort of rampant homophobia that it used to go in for in the 1980s. I’m not suggesting here that Mail readers feel a deep love for Ralph Miliband – few will ever have heard of him – but going after a politician by publishing a hatchet job on his deceased dad just seems nasty. And, yes, there’s no moral difference with publishing a hatchet job on the late Ian Cameron to have a go at Dave.

There’s another, more Machiavellian school of thought which runs like this: Paul Dacre is not a stupid man. The consequences of his actions have been, firstly, to make the public warm to Ed Miliband (something Ed hasn’t achieved under his own steam), and secondly, to overshadow the Tory conference (thus annoying Dave, who is not Dacre’s favourite politician). This is intriguing, but may be a case of overthinking the situation. There’s another aspect, though: ten years ago the Mail could have (and frequently did) get away with this sort of thing. Not so in the age of social media, which has levelled things out a bit.

As for what Ed is thinking, well, it goes without saying that he’s fiercely defensive of his dad. (Actually, just about the only time Ed Miliband is able to move me is when he’s talking about his parents. That’s when you get those rare flashes of overt emotion from him.) Ed, mind you, is also a politician, and one with a pronounced ruthless streak. He believes that his greatest triumph came with the taming of News International, and one could well understand him thinking it’s about time to have a go at taming Associated. He knows how his grassroots feel about the press, and how much they loathe the Mail in particular. And, while being nasty about Ed’s dad is not exactly a transgression on the scale of hacking a murder victim’s phone, one does not get to choose one’s circumstances.

Who knows? Maybe he really does think it’s time to have a more civilised discourse – though, if that’s the case, it doesn’t help to have Alastair Campbell going on Newsnight to complain about bullying and smears. I merely mention this.

Now to the historic side, which interests me more – or, more accurately, annoys me more, because we’ve been having yet another of those displays of invincible ignorance which remind me how few people in the British political-media class actually know any history or ideology.

I think it’s quite sad that Ralph had become such an obscure figure, known only (and then only to politics geeks) as the father of the Milibros. His books are quite hard to obtain these days (hint to his publishers, if they have any business sense), and the political milieu he lived in has been forgotten in these postmodern times.

So perhaps it’s understandable that only one or two people in the commentariat seem to have the vaguest idea of Ralph’s work. Many on the right (including a few people I usually rate highly) seem to have just seen the words “Marxist academic”, and lazily dusted off their old denunciations of Eric Hobsbawm, rather missing the point that Ralph was not Eric and had very different beliefs. Miliband senior was not an apologist for Stalin any more than Orwell was, and it really won’t do to say “Well, maybe he didn’t support the invasion of Hungary, but he knew Hobsbawm, who did.” On that basis we’d have to condemn lots of people who knew Hobsbawm, starting with Her Majesty the Queen, who made him a Companion of Honour.[1] But, I reiterate, Ralph was not Eric.

On the other hand, it would be a pretty serious misrepresentation for Labourites to portray Ralph as just another common-or-garden social democrat. No, he was much more interesting and idiosyncratic than that.

If we’re going to do political heredity – which I’ve always thought sits rather oddly with people on the left – it might be worth noting that Ralph’s father, Samuel Miliband, had a background in the Bund, the Jewish socialist party in Poland, which was closely linked to the Russian Mensheviks. Not only were the Bundists not Stalinists, rather a lot of them ended up being killed by the Stalin regime. (Those who weren’t were mostly killed by the Nazis.) I think that background has some relevance.

As for Ralph, well, he was a Bevanite in the 1950s, but drifted out of the Labour Party circa 1960 and never joined anything else. I’m certain he always voted Labour, for want of an alternative, but that’s as far as he went, and for good reason. There’s an old and rather cruel joke, but one with a grain of truth, that Ralph Miliband wrote books about how Labour would always let the working class down, and his sons went into politics to prove him right. And indeed his major works – firstly Parliamentary Socialism and then The State in Capitalist Society – were all about the inherent limitations of Labourite politics. And this in the 1960s, when Labour was much more identifiably social democratic than it is today.

Two points are worth making here. The first was that Ralph’s criticism of British parliamentary democracy was that it wasn’t sufficiently democratic. Right through his thought you find him constantly returning to the themes of the self-activity of the masses, and a profound scepticism about saviours from on high transforming society on the masses’ behalf. It’s all a long way from the cult of personality.

The second point, flowing from that, was a belief that the working class needed to be in politics on its own account. It needed a political vehicle. That wasn’t the Communist Party, hopelessly compromised by its dependence on the Kremlin; it wasn’t the Labour Party, which always raised hopes only to dash them; the smaller sects weren’t even in a position to start offering alternatives. What Ralph was driving at here was the concept of a democratic socialist party rooted in an active and conscious working-class movement. However, not only did this not exist, it wasn’t even apparent how we might get there.

Hence Ralph’s refreshing realism about the actual political situation we found ourselves in. Here’s a snippet from a sceptical though not unsympathetic take on the Labour left back in 1966:

The Labour Party, it is always tritely said, is a coalition; but it is less often noted that it is a coalition on certain very definite terms, mainly that the Left should not expect to shift the whole axis of the Party. Not that the Left has ever come near to doing that. But on those occasions when it has managed to defeat the leadership on an important issue of policy, it has also, with very few exceptions indeed, found that there was a world of difference between defeating the leadership at a Party Conference and forcing it to act upon that defeat. This has been the case even when the Labour Party has been in opposition. It is doubly true when the Labour Party is in office, precisely at the moment where policies can actually be implemented, but also when the power of the Labour leaders vis-à-vis their followers is greatest.

You said it, Ralph. And in fact, doesn’t it say something about our current situation that Miliband junior can be labelled ‘Red Ed’ for espousing a very, very mild Fabianism of the sort his father used to denounce?

Maybe boring, middle-of-the-road social democracy is about the best the British left can aspire to these days. Certainly, boring, middle-of-the-road social democracy would have more to recommend it than the postmodern technocratic element that’s come to dominate Labour politics these days. But a time when that even seemed possible grows more and more distant, and fewer and fewer people remember that it was ever a possibility.

You can sing the Red Flag and have a Clem Attlee avatar, but with every year that passes it becomes more kitschy, like the Mao memorabilia trade in China. What’s more, it becomes kitsch that’s incomprehensible to anyone born after the 1970s at the latest. How that can be dealt with, I have no idea. But maybe a (Ralph) Milibandian approach would be to identify and anatomise the problem, and trust that people (not an impersonal ‘History’) will find solutions. Maybe. The old chap’s scepticism was marvellous, but outright pessimism seems very tempting.

[1] Actually, I largely agree with Tony Judt’s assessment of Hobsbawm, with some added reservations to do with internecine Communist Party politics. But that’s another story.

Update: I’ve been reminded that in fact Hobsbawm did not support the invasion of Hungary in 1956 but publicly opposed it. Chalk that one down as another example of the perils of assuming you know what someone believed.


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