British commentators have criticized a prominent newspaper's decision to publish a piece vilifying the Jewish father of the leader of the Labor Party for his apparently disloyal views of Britain, while maintaining that such behavior should be allowed as part of a free press.
Speaking at an event held in London on Wednesday to mark 80 years since the Nazi book burnings, David Aaronovitch of The Times argued that the Daily Mail's piece attacking Jewish Marxist academic Ralph Miliband over comments he made as a teenager about Britain, had been "a hatchet job" and did not fall under the category of fair comment.
But he told the audience at the London Jewish Cultural Center event that a free press meant newspapers should be permitted to publish this type of material, while readers "are allowed to say we think it is awful."
The debate came as the Mail stood by its decision to headline the piece about the elder Miliband's views: "The man who hated Britain".
The newspaper has attracted significant criticism for the original piece, and for a similarly harsh follow-up published alongside a response from Ed Miliband, son of Ralph and the first Jewish leader of his party.
Much of the anger has been focused on the fact that Ralph Milliband, a Belgian Jew who fled to Britain to escape the Nazis, served in the Navy during the Second World War; many have also pointed out the paper's murky record during the lead up to the war, including public support for Oswald Mosley and the Fascist movement.
Aaronovitch noted that Jews were historically "open to the notion that they are not loyal," although he and others on the panel rejected outright the suggestion that the piece was directed at Jews, or at the possibility of the UK having a Jewish Prime Minister after the next general election.
"The idea that the Mail is sitting there trying to think of ways of knocking Miliband out of his job is preposterous," added Kelvin McKenzie, the former editor of The Sun, who said that in the same position he would have been willing to run such a piece.
And while the Guardian's Jenni Russell described it as a clear decision intended to damage Miliband, she said it was "the price we have to pay for a free press." "I don't dispute their right to run it," she said. However another journalist, Steve Richards of the Independent, argued that the piece had crossed a boundary and was not an acceptable price to pay for freedom.
The debate marked the 80th anniversary of Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels throwing the books of Sigmund Freud into a bonfire at the University of Berlin. Members of the panel questioned whether statutory regulation of the press, which is being considered by British politicians in the wake of the phonehacking scandal, was achievable or desirable. Arguing that it was neither, Aaronovitch referred to online activity as uncontrollable and said such regulation would have "a chilling effect" on press freedom.
"How on earth are you going to regulate Twitter," asked Mackenzie. "You would have to outlaw it - the viciousness is a thousand times worse than in the papers."
The panel also discussed whether freedom of speech was compatible with a ban on the garb worn by some religious Muslim women, and looked at whether the use of the word 'Yid' by fans of Tottenham Hotspur football club was acceptable.
"We are an incredibly diverse society and we all need to be a bit thicker skinned about what we take offense to," concluded Aaronovitch.
Jennifer Lipman is a writer living in London. She tweets on @jenlipman. She is the former Comment Editor of The Jewish Chronicle and has written for a number of British newspapers and online publications including The Telegraph, The Independent, The Guardian and The Times. http/Jenniferlipman.wordpress.com