The Daily Mail found itself in hot water this week after Geoffrey Levy declared that Ralph Miliband, renowned Marxist thinker and father to David and Ed, hated Britain. The focal point of the piece was a diary entry from the then 16-year-old Ralph, which Michael Newman, the author of the biography from which the quotes were sourced, has since alleged were deliberately distorted:
As for the country that gave him and his family protection, the 17-year-old wrote in his diary: ‘The Englishman is a rabid nationalist. They are perhaps the most nationalist people in the world . . . you sometimes want them almost to lose (the war) to show them how things are. They have the greatest contempt for the Continent . . . To lose their empire would be the worst possible humiliation.’
I have to say that I have been genuinely surprised that many have been shocked by the article and the DM’s lurid editorial defending the piece; for them, this is standard practice. The very logic that the Daily Mail operates on, successfully it should be noted, is akin to that of a troll, deliberately publishing stories that appear sincere but which producers know feature controversial content that will generate website hits and thus commercial revenue from advertisers (1). Nonetheless I’m all for the debate that this episode has triggered, shining light on wider debates on the appropriateness of certain journalistic practices. For example, see the excellent posts from Charlie Beckett and Bart Cammaerts.
However, something else in this escapade has piqued my interest. During last night’s Newsnight exchange between Jon Steafel, deputy editor of the Daily Mail, and
Malcom Tucker Alastair Campbell, (which can be viewed here), Steafel said the following:
We examined Ralph Miliband’s views as they were put forward in his writings, his diaries, his books, his speeches, and those views conveyed an impression of what he thought about Britain, which was very antipathetic to the views and values of an awful lot of British people…
His views on British institutions from our schools, to our Royal Family, to our military, to our universities, to the Church, to our great newspapers… If you take those things together and you combine them with his espousing of a Marxist ideology, that, in our view, represented someone who hated British values.
Now, besides the fact that the piece shows little to no evidence of engaging with Miliband’s substantial body of work (PR1400 students, take note), what interested me was Jon Steafel’s reference to British values; what, precisely, are British values? Emily Maitlis, the presenter on Newsnight, did go on to press Jon Steafel for further clarity but his response was simply to throw together a list of institutions and patriotic buzzwords that are commonly associated with Britain and British life.
Which leads me onto this video from the BBC’s home editor, Mark Easton:
In conjunction with this article, Easton asks what being British means to British people today. Based on the limited data revealed from the last census, Easton describes how those who identified as British did so as British identity is fundamentally flexible, recognising the underlying similarities that link citizens across the four separate countries, whilst simultaneously accommodating for vast cultural differences. It it especially appealing to younger citizens who have social and cultural links that span across the globe. It’s a fascinating take on British identity, and the porousness and flux that defines it. It is also one that is at odds with Steafel’s, and the DM’s, archaic understanding.
The irony is, nobody hates modern Britain more than the #DailyMail
— Chris Fassnidge (@chrisfassnidge)
However, It is not my intention to call out Jon Steafel’s interpretation. The comprehensive study undertaken by Ethnos in 2005, 'Citizenship and Belonging: What is Britishness?', also revealed a number of competing definitions for British identity. Britishness, and identity more broadly, is essentially a moving target.
Where Steafel’s notion is outdated and Easton’s piece revealing, is the notion that identity is personalised; the micro-level is now much more interesting, empirically, than the vague, imprecise macro-level labels used by Steafel.
So how do people form their political identity? Networks challenge rigid, territorial identity as each citizen now wields much more control. Individuals increasingly balance a competing set of fluid postmaterialist values that become politically significant in certain contexts and scenarios. However, this does not mean that identity is no longer tied to national or territorial boundaries. The nation-state, and social factors like class, gender, and race, still act as a foundation for the construction of identity; political socialization is still important.
Instead, citizens now have multi-layered identities, in which a number of orientations compete and converge and form our own personal construction of citizenship. As shown by Russell Dalton’s (2) ‘hierarchical model of beliefs’, citizens create their identity based on the perceived importance of these different ‘layers’. In terms of my own research, social media platforms are used by citizens to coordinate and control identity through networks.
I’ll leave you with this quote from Alastair Campbell, one that I feel epitomises the Daily Mail perfectly (courtesy of Buzzfeed).
For more on the DM’s piece on Ralph Miliband see:
Alex Andreou | Alastair Campbell’s attack on the Mail was terrifying – and brilliant
The Guardian | Miliband and the Mail: seeing red
London Evening Standard | I had to defend my dad - they crossed the line by publishing a picture of his gravestone, says Ed Miliband
Ed Miliband | My Dad Was A Man Who Loved Britain
Adam Sherwin | Ed Miliband versus Paul Dacre: Going to war with the Daily Mail might actually be smart politics
and a little game… How much are you hated by the Daily Mail?
(1) I’m currently working on some research with Billur Aslan and Ben O’Loughlin in which we are analysing the controversy that surrounded the Chinese swimmer Ye-Shiwen following her world record time in the 400 metre individual medley. This case has illustrated a number of examples of the Daily Mail attempting to generate controversy. See, for example, the description of Ye in this article:
Ye Shiwen possesses that same masculine, almost wall-like figure; the same impossibly wide shoulders and huge, rounded thighs; the same armchair-leg calves. Rebecca Adlington is a strong woman, to be sure, but she still looks feminine; Ye, though barely out of adolescence, appears androgynous.
(2) Dalton, R. J. (2008). Citizens Politics: Public Opinion and Political Parties in Advanced Industrial Democracies (5th ed.). Washington D.C.: CQ Press. Page 25.
Some interesting developments this morning (03/10):
Ed Miliband has written to Lord Rothermere complaining that a reporter from the Mail on Sunday attended a private memorial service for his uncle yesterday uninvited | Link
Nick Clegg has criticised the DM during his weekly “Call Clegg” programme on LBC stating: “I’m not a regular reader of this newspaper but every time I do open it, it just seems to be overflowing with bile about modern Britain” | Link
Alastair Campbell has set up a Change.org petition calling for Paul Dacre, the editor of the DM, to debate either him or another “professional broadcast interviewer” | Link