Growing up the child of conservative working class parents, there were only two newspapers that made a regular appearance in our house – the Sun (for Dad) and the Daily Mail (for Mum). I don’t ever recall seeing a broadsheet at home, let alone a paper with leftwing views. Consequently, when I look back, my own political leanings seemed formed in direct opposition to my parents’ choice in newspapers. Before I knew anything about anything, that is, I knew I despised the tabloids. I well remember the homophobic AIDS-hysteria of the Sun (this was the 1980s), as well as its philistinism. I also remember an instinctual revulsion to the anti-immigrant fervour of the Mail, as well as to its authoritarian and reactionary tendencies. To me the casual racism, sexism and homophobia that I occasionally heard plopping from the mouths of my relatives could be fully blamed on the kinds of tabloids they used to read. I seriously believed that if the people around me just read nice papers like the Guardian they would welcome immigrants and gays. They might even become feminists.
Mind you, at that time I simply couldn’t bear to be exposed to opinions divergent from my own. I found listening to rightwing opinions physically painful. The people who disagreed with me weren’t simply wrong; they were monstrous. It wasn’t that their views differed from my own; they were positively evil. The tabloids, as an organ of that evil, I considered an insidious poison injected into the innocent minds of the masses. The idea that newspapers might reflect the views of their readers, rather than merely brainwash them into those views, didn’t occur to me.
My ideas have changed somewhat since. I still don’t like the Sun or the Daily Mail. But I don’t have to read them. The difference between then and now is that I am no longer bothered because millions of other people do.
Watching the fallout from Geoffrey Levi’s recent hatchet job on Ed Miliband’s father, I was reminded of my younger self by all those outraged people who use the Daily Mail as a kind of expletive or boo word. To my mind the piece was a rather weak attempt to smear Ed Miliband by casting his father as an ‘enemy’ of Britain. Levi’s case seemed to rest on two pieces of evidence: a) Ralph Miliband was a Marxist; and b) he once wrote a diary entry aged 17 that said some jolly rude things about Dear Old Blighty. In trying to paint Ralph Miliband as a rabid Britain-hating commie, Levi, as the late Norman Geras pointed out, failed to draw a crucial distinction between the pro-Stalinist left, and the democratic socialist left of which Miliband Sr. was a part – an intellectual tradition that includes other such Britain-haters as Bertrand Russell and George Orwell.
It is easy, on one level, to understand why the piece so annoyed people. As Charles Moore put it in the Spectator, it pricked the public’s sense of taste and decency. A lot of people, for instance, said they were offended because this was an attack on someone’s deceased father. Yet if fathers or the dead are off limits to the press, we narrow down our available targets for scrutiny considerably. I, for one, would want to know if Ed Miliband grew up on the knee of a fascist sympathiser whether that man was alive or not. The point is Levi had no real case to make against Ralph, let alone one that had the sinister implications for Ed that Levi clearly tried to suggest. While the piece demanded a serious response along those lines – and got one – the sheer level of moralising outrage it produced in some quarters struck me as disproportionate to the point of fever.
Over on Twitter, for example, Owen Jones was busy trying to organise some kind of ‘protest’ against the paper. What that hoped to achieve, beyond making Jones and his fellow protesters feel very good about themselves, I leave for others to decide. Is this what the Left does now, protest newspapers for publishing views with which it happens to disagree?
One thing is abundantly clear: for people like Jones, the Daily Mail is not a normal newspaper. It isn’t, that is, a commercial venture expressing the views of its owners, editors and journalists while serving a segment of public opinion. Oh no. It is a force of cosmic evil.
Just check this tweet:
Maybe it’s just happy coincidence that the newspaper “stuffed” with “the worst elements of our country” also happens to be the one that Jones disagrees with the most. Maybe things really are that Manichean, that simple. Maybe the Daily Mail really is just as evil as it seemed to my teenage self.
But then again, maybe disagreeing with Owen Jones isn’t quite as wicked as he makes it sound.
The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has written of how liberals and conservatives exist in different “moral matrixes”. Morality, he argues, binds those existing in one moral community, at the expense of blinding them to the motives of those existing in others. It is far easier, and more psychologically pleasing, to assume people who disagree with you are doing so because they are stupid and malevolent, than it is to accept they may have perfectly compelling reasons for feeling as they do. If you are Owen Jones, and you believe you are fighting the good fight on behalf of the oppressed, those who oppose you must be bad or mad or dumb – how could it possibly be otherwise?
It is easy, indeed natural, to fall prey to such thinking, and it takes a conscious effort to overcome it. Left unchecked, however, the results of self-righteousness can be very ugly indeed. At the recent anti-cuts protest, with its obligatory chants of “Tory scum”, Tim Montgomerie was apparently spat at and activist Mahyar Tousi racially abused. Lest the Left think the Geoffrey Levi and Paul Dacre have a monopoly on abusing the dead, it is worth remembering the undignified grave dancing that followed the death of Margaret Thatcher. What is this if not “fear, prejudice, hate” of exactly the sort the Left is so quick to find in the minds of its enemies? If the Mail embodies the “worst” of Britain, then that side of the Left, noisily intolerant of any opinion it finds disagreeable, hardly represents the best.
I worry this is part of a new air of censoriousness. When I was growing up, it was conservatives that were always trying to get stuff banned, such as video nasties and violent computer games. I found my own principles in part by objecting to these attempts at censorship. Nowadays, regrettably, you are more likely to find members of the liberal/left forming raging Twitter mobs in reaction to speech deemed ‘offensive’ to liberal sensibilities. It is leftwing newspapers that capitulate to their demands. It is the Labour party, and the Liberal Democrats, who rush to implement the first state regulation of the press for three hundred years, and it is a liberal/left intelligentsia that cheers them on, because they see it as justly punishing those very newspapers whose views and readership they just so happen to already despise. Judging by the sheer level of vitriol that accompanies discussions of the tabloids on social media, I get the impression that many among the liberal/left would quite happily shutter papers like the Sun and the Mail while seeing no contradiction whatsoever with their avowed commitment to the principle of free speech.
I’m not, to repeat, defending the views expressed by Geoffrey Levi. His was a grubby little smear, to be sure. Nor am I defending the views of his paper, which for the most part I reject. What I am defending is their right to hold to these views and to publish them, and the right of readers to read them. That rather elementary point tends to get swept aside as the wave of condemnation swallows all before it.