In politics the question of what constitutes relevant and valid documentary evidence for an argument is of central importance. I have recently discovered that the most significant factor determining a document’s relevance is the age of the evidence concerned. More specifically I have learned that the “expiry date” of documentary evidence is somewhere in the region of 73 years – I would like to express my gratitude to the deputy editor of the Daily Mail for sharing this insight with me and other viewers of Newsnight.
The first item on Tuesday’s show concerned the continuing controversy about the Daily Mail’s portrayal of Ralph Miliband as “the man who hated Britain”. It featured an interview with John Steafel, the deputy editor of the Mail, and also a thoroughly entertaining and light-hearted exchange between him and his buddy Alistair Campbell. In the original article about Ralph Miliband, Steafel’s paper had made reference to a 1941 diary entry by the then seventeen-year-old Miliband to support their assertion that he hated Britain.
“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.” (Daily Mail, 2013)
As the Mail made reference to this 72-year-old document in support of their argument we may reasonably conclude that this particular piece of evidence is relevant and had not yet reached its “expiry date”. On Newsnight Steafel explained that Ralph Miliband’s values and opinions were also relevant because of their importance in shaping his son.
“the point of the article was very straight forward. Ed Miliband seeks to be Prime Minister of this country, he’s made many speeches over the three years since he became Labour leader and in many of those speeches he refers to the story of his parents, it’s an important part of understanding who Ed Miliband is, the backstory of his refugee, of his immigrant parents and the difficulties that they had when they came here and the values that they stood for and how those values shaped him when he was a young man, when he was growing up just as they shaped his brother. So if you’re to understand Ed Miliband who has told us that he wants to bring back socialism to modern Britain then you need to understand the values that shaped him…” (Newsnight, 2013)
In gathering documentary evidence in support of their assertion that Ralph hated Britain, Steafel explained that the Mail had “examined Ralph Miliband’s views as they were put forward in his writings: his diaries, his books, his speeches” he also clarified that further evidence of Miliband’s hatred of Britain could be derived from his socialist leanings “he was a supporter of the Marxist ideology which was being used to run governments in other parts of the continent, in other parts of Europé which was responsible for a lot of terrible, terrible things including millions and millions of deaths”(Newsnight, 2013).
It was somewhere around this point that things got interesting. The interviewer raised the question of whether a pro-fascist article “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” by Viscount Rothermere (the owner of the Daily Mail in 1934) was relevant to the organizational identity of the newspaper today. Steafel replied “I don’t think it’s relevant to bring up a piece from eighty years ago that was written by a member of the Rothermere family”. This was the point at which I realised that documentary evidence has an ”expiry date”. As Steafel pointed out earlier, it is important to understand Ralph Miliband because of his influence in shaping Ed, and because of Ed’s prominence in British political life. Similarly the Daily Mail is a prominent feature of British political life but how it has been shaped by its owners (the Rothermeres) is not relevant. The salient point which Steafel identified was that the Rothermere article had been written 80 years ago –of course! – it had passed its “expiry date”. But this begged the question of exactly when a document’s relevance expires.
The 1934 article in question was “Hurrah for the Blackshirts -in praise of British fascists”, the one where Viscount Rothermere praised Oswald Moseley’s “sound, commonsense, Conservative doctrine” (Daily Mail, 1934). That article, the one to which the interviewer referred, was written 79 years ago. Steafel said that an article written 80 years ago was not relevant but he was probably just confusing it with the 1933 ”Nazi Youth in Control” article -that’s the one where Rothermere pointed out that talk of ”Nazi atrocities” were an exaggeration and in fact just “a few isolated acts of violence” (Daily Mail, 1933). Either way neither of these articles pertaining to the Mail’s historical support of fascism is relevant, but the Ralph Miliband diary is. We may therefore initially understand that a document’s relevance expires at some point between 72 years and 79 years.
Given Steafel’s assertion that there had been a careful consideration of a broad range of source material for its indictment of Miliband, we might infer that a similar principle could apply in relation to considering Viscount Rothermere’s support of prominent fascists in the 1930’s. Fortunately we too have access to other documentary evidence. In 2005 the Daily Telegraph published a story about how the British Intelligence services had been monitoring the correspondence of Viscount Rothermere. It made reference to a letter sent to Hitler shortly after the invasion of Czechoslovakia.
“It included a ‘a very indiscreet letter to the Fuhrer congratulating him on his walk into Prague’ – Hitler having sent troops into the Czech capital in early 1939 in breach of the Munich agreement of the previous year. The note urged Hitler to follow up his coup with the invasion of Romania.” (Telegraph, 2005)
A few months later, shortly before the start of World War Two, Rotheremere was still corresponding with his pen-pal.
“My Dear Führer, I have watched with understanding and interest the progress of your great and superhuman work in regenerating your country.” (Guardian, 2005)
This letter, written 74 years ago, is not relevant to the current identity of the Daily Mail. Two years later however, when the seventeen-year-old Ralph Miliband writes in his diary we have a relevant and valid documentary source which can be used by the upstanding journalists of the Daily Mail for their balanced reporting on his son Ed. So there you have it – don’t bother using anything written more than 72 years ago to support your argument– it’s irrelevant.