For the want of a question mark, the empire was defeated. Something like that anyway. Changing The Man Who Hated Britain to A Man Who Hated Britain? would have saved the Daily Mail an awful lot of bother. Too late for that now. And, of course, there are many people savouring the Mail’s distress. Many more, too, who appreciate the irony of the Mail being the object of this week’s Two Minute Hate. What goes around comes around. Sauce for geese and ganders and all that.

I thought the problem with the Mail’s hatchet job on Ralph Miliband was that it used a very small, rather blunt hatchet. A couple of diary entries, a few quotations from his books and, er, that was it. Surely there should have been more material than this? Disappointing.

Of course, it could also be that the Mail was mistaken. Perhaps Ralph Miliband did not really hate the country to which he’d fled from Nazi persecution. Then again if the Daily Mail cannot accuse Marxist professors from North London – even dead ones – of subversion and fellow-travelling then what on earth is the world coming to?

So there seem to be an awful lot of people surprised by the fact that the Daily Mail is the Daily Mail. Then again, folk on the right are always surprised – or at least pretend to be surprised – by the fact that the Guardian stubbornly insists on being the Guardian.

There is, of course, a lot of hate around and it is by no means confined to the right. As Stephen Moss described the scene at Tory conference:

Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, dead, dead, dead,” scream the protesters as they file past the Midland hotel in Manchester. It is a cruel greeting for the Conservative party as it gathers in this most un-Tory city. “Filth, you’re a waste of space, a waste of oxygen,” they shout at the shiny young delegates as they pass. I suggest to a policeman that this constitutes intimidation, especially the bloke in the “Kill Tory scum” T-shirt who is filming people as they enter the secure zone.

Social media helps facilitate and exacerbate this kind of over-reaction just as it helps fuel the anti-Mail movement of recent days. In all cases there is a desperate lack of proportion. The Mail may have gone too far but let’s not pretend that its critics are unsullied or, as Isabel says, acting from the purest of motives. When Alastair Campbell is occupying the moral high ground it is easy to wonder if you smell a rat.

Then again, there will be no shortage of Conservatives quietly happy to see Paul Dacre (pictured above) put in a spot of some difficulty. The Tories have felt the back of his hand often enough. Dacre, in this view, is akin to some over-mighty medieval baron whose comeuppance and cutting-down-to-size had to happen eventually. And when it did there was much rejoicing and sighing with relief at court. 

So be it. It’s a tough game. But what began as a reasonable protest against the Mail’s alleged excesses has morphed into something rather different. Hacked Off campaigners, for instance, have pointed out that even after Leveson the Mail would still be allowed to print stuff like this. And, the implication is obvious, that’s just wrong. Other chumps have got in on the act, including some who should know better. Giles Coren, for instance, tweeted this morning that, “The deep antisemitism and wilful misgrasp of history on the Mail attacks on Ed Miliband has changed my feelings about press regulation.”

For the love of god, this is grim. Perhaps the Mail went too far (though I see nothing wrong with it despatching a reporter to a memorial service for one of Miliband’s uncles. Newspapers attend funerals and memorial services all the time. What’s different about this one?). But even if it did, so what? That’s one of the reasons for having a free press: so papers can go too far. Better that, certainly, than that they don’t go far enough.

In any case, Ralph Miliband’s beliefs are a perfectly respectable subject for newspapers to explore. Ed Miliband wishes to become Prime Minister of this country. It is normal, even proper, for newspapers to write about his background and consider how his parents might have influenced the development of his own character and political thought.

Now you may say that the Mail was being deliberately unfair but that’s a different matter and one, in the end, subject to interpretation. But consider this: it is considered axiomatic that David Cameron’s privileged upbringing informs his politics and worldview. Eton. Oxford. Bullingdon. A cabinet of toffs, millionaires and millionaire toffs. How, I mean really, are people like that qualified to lead this country in, you know, the twenty-first century?

True, no-one, I think, has suggested that David Cameron’s father hated Britain. That is an important difference. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Cameron’s background is an accepted – acceptable – part of Britain’s political geography. And there’s nothing wrong with that! Subjecting Miliband’s own upbringing to some comparable level of scrutiny is hardly a disreputable business, far less something beyond the pale of acceptable discourse. This is true even when the scrutiny is partial, twisted and over-the-top.

The Mail might not much care for Ed Miliband but, you know, it doesn’t much like David Cameron (and his “set”) either. Indeed the Prime Minister of recent times the Mail most admired was Gordon Brown. Not, admittedly, on a consistent basis but Dacre liked and appreciated what he saw as Brown’s old-fashioned presbyterian values. He may have been mistaken then too, of course.

I suppose I should note, for the record, that I’ve never written for the Mail or any other part of the Associated Newspapers empire but that my father has and that I have friends who either have worked or still do toil for the Mail. But my instinct, when newspapers are attacked by political interests, is to defend the newspapers even if that means defending actions which are less than wholly defensible.

The Mail’s politics are not my own but it is a mistake to assume that the Mail leads its readers. If the Mail is an opportunistic, hypocritical, hyper-censorious newspaper that may be because there are many opportunistic, hypocritical, hyper-censorious people in this country and I see no reason why they should not be permitted a newspaper that reflects their passions and prejudices. No-one else need read it. The Mail does not so much make the political weather as reflect it. It is powerful because it is read by millions not because it is a corrupting influence on millions of British people. Your beef is less with the Mail than with the Great British public. Many of them are sods, you see.

All newspapers – even the Spectator – print some pretty silly, shoddy, things from time to time. That seems an insufficient reason for boycotts and pressurising advertisers to withdraw their support for those newspapers. I mean, only last year the Guardian published an article complaining that North Korea – of all damn places – receives a desperately unfair press. That was, I thought, more revolting and offensive than anything the Mail published this week. (Though, admittedly, that wretched piece should not be viewed as the Guardian’s own views whereas, thanks to its bilious editorials, the Mail’s anti-Miliband screeds obviously reflect the paper’s own views).

So enough of this pious, sanctimonious claptrap. The Mail went too far and you have every right to protest about that (though, hey, the paper did not need to give Ed Miliband a right-to-reply. I thought it rather good that it did). But it is also clear that there is a significant chunk of leftist opinion that would like to prevent this sort of thing ever happening again. That is, there are plenty of people who think the proper response to articles with which they disagree is to legislate or regulate them out of existence. That seems much more troubling than anything the Mail has done recently.

In a battle between these forces I’ll take the side of disreputable, twisted, tendentious, malignant journalism every time.

Tags: british politics, Daily Mail, Ed Miliband, Leveson, Newspapers, Paul Dacre, Ralph Miliband, tabloids