Brian Monteith: Spat killed off Tory coverage

The Daily Mail mess not only missed its target, it lost the Conservatives a lot of publicity, writes Brian Monteith

David Cameron makes his keynote speech on the final day of the Conservative Party Conference. Picture: PA
David Cameron makes his keynote speech on the final day of the Conservative Party Conference. Picture: PA

As THE Tories gathered last week, their hopes were high that they could use the emergence of “Red Ed” Miliband as a way to strengthen their position in the run-up to the election the year after next. Miliband’s pitch for a return to 1970s-style price-fixing was manna for Conservative strategists as it could be used to provide a clearer focus that the choice between Cameron and Miliband would be a stark one and that voting Ukip risked allowing a Labour victory by default.

Most parties gain a post-conference bounce in the opinion polls and orchestrating a robust response to Neil Kinnock’s new hero was seen as the way to achieve it. Well, it didn’t quite work out like that.

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Ironically, Monday, the first full day in Manchester, was owned by Ukip leader Nigel Farage. He dominated the conference even though technically he was not attending it. Having been refused, understandably, a conference pass, Farage worked his socks off at the many meetings held outside the main venue, speaking at three fringe events, attracting a great deal of media attention and being talked about in all the bars and cafés into the wee sma’ hours.

The Tuesday, papers were full of Farage and what he had been saying, taking column inches and broadcast oxygen away from the Chancellor’s speech. So far so bad.

Then it got worse. Although the Daily Mail had printed its original diatribe about Ed Miliband’s Marxist father, Ralph, on the Saturday before, it had slowly built up a head of steam, and by Tuesday it had become the main story.

The reason for this is simple, and had nothing to do with the Labour leader defending his late and loving father, although that was undoubtedly a motive too. The fact was that while Miliband found some measure of public sympathy on his side (the Prime Minister was moved to say he too would have defended his own late father in similar circumstances), Labour and leftist commentators were smelling the blood of their most bitter opponent and the broadcast media saw an opportunity to give prominence to the counterattack on one of their most successful competitors.

There was a perfect conspiracy of interests to keep the story going so that it would eat into the Tory conference coverage at the expense of all those carefully-crafted speeches. And it did.

Was there a Tory conference? Well, yes; but beyond the Prime Minister’s headline address can anyone remember what other Cabinet ministers said? Having put all their efforts into making their own conference as media-friendly as possible, Labour would normally have provided little more than soundbite rebuttals and be happy to get a mention. Instead, even after David Cameron’s speech on Wednesday, the Daily Mail versus Miliband spat was still running third or fourth on news broadcasts and was kept going by the Labour leader writing to the newspaper’s chairman, Lord Rothermere, asking for a wider consideration of the Daily Mail’s conduct – although the mention of the phrase “cost-of-living crisis” jarred, and illustrated this was about gaining party advantage rather than writing a personal slight.

The role of social media, and especially Twitter, was crucial to keeping the momentum going and as more commentators chose to write about the fallout, so more tweets kept the issue live. As could be anticipated, Thursday’s BBC Question Time discussed the topic and it did not disappoint, with shouting and hypocrisy in equal measure. As I write this column, it is still being written about and tweeted.

Meanwhile, genuine political stories that should concern us all – such as e-mails allegedly suggesting that Labour’s former health secretary, Andy Burnam, had sought to put “pressure on the regulator to water down its concerns”, following some investigations into above-average death rates at English hospitals, were not even covered by the BBC.

Whatever one thinks about the Daily Mail’s line of attack and whether or not it justified its brutal headline – or Ed Miliband’s efforts to keep the story going when he had already been granted a right of reply by the paper – there is one thing that has been lost: a real and serious debate about Marxism and the West’s inability to come to terms with its legacy. Even after the fall of Communism and the availability of archive material from the vaults of the former Soviet Union and its satellites, the greatest man-made cataclysm is hardly talked about and its apologists still try to justify the ideology.

I am currently reading Mao – The Unknown Story, the riveting biography by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday of Mao Tse-tung, and it is harrowing and unforgiving, and the character vile and monstrous. In the respect that Ralph Miliband and other British academics such as Eric Hobsbawm, revered by many in the British left, were advocates, and certainly in the latter case, an apologist for Marxism, there is a need to remind ourselves of the 70 million Chinese who died at the hands of Mao – more than were killed by Stalin and Hitler combined. That some try to challenge the figures and say it was only 65 million or 50 million spectacularly miss the point.

The deaths were not some bad luck resulting from mistaken policies but a direct consequence of the use of terror by Mao on his own people – and often on fellow Marxists. Burying people alive, often after sadistic tortures, was common, as was sub machine-gunning people to meet quotas of death that Mao would demand his cadres met.

Highlighting these episodes that were repeated to some degree in practically every other Communist state, often with the encouragement of Mao, is now conveniently forgotten and rarely discussed. Challenging Miliband to condemn the ideology that made the 20th century the bloodiest yet is what the Daily Mail should have sought to do, but instead its headline missed the target. If we can at least have a proper debate about Marxism then some good might come out of this whole sorry episode.