Media and Mythical Speech

On the 27th September 2013 The Mail Published a piece with the headline “The man who hated Britain: Red Ed’s pledge to bring back socialism is a homage to his Marxist father. So what did Miliband Snr really believe in? The answer should disturb everyone who loves this country.”[1]  A few days later in response to Ed Mililand’s rebuttal The Mail published a second piece written by Geoffrey Levy refusing to apologise, stating in its bold headline “We repeat this man did hate Britain”[2] Levy goes on to tell us how Ralph Miliband the Marxist academic had sworn himself to the cause of the worker’s struggle having fled Belgium to escape the Nazis. What Levy fails to tell us, is that he writes for a newspaper that gave sympathetic coverage and support to Mussolini, Hitler and Oswald Mosley in the 1930’s.  Myths abound because they almost defy scrutiny, calling upon older established myths, in this case nationalism and the perceived threat of communism. We simply take at face value what we read when signs and symbols act to give meaning to the information that is missing but alluded to. Myths function as a simple short cut to longer explanations, summoning up connotation and latent beliefs conditioned by our subjection to ideologies. The Daily Mail, is a right wing paper, espousing a particular view of the world, read by its readers who accept its ideology, as it reflects and reinforces their own.


In the original Levy piece we are told of Ralph Miliband’s “adolescent distaste for the British character”[3] and that this didn’t “stop him from availing himself of the fine education that was on offer in this country, or spending the rest of his life here.”[4] This is the rhetoric of nationalism, the myth that the British have a very particular type of national character, a system of beliefs and practices that is shared, and a belief that this sense of pride is universal. Just as we share this national identity, we are reminded that he doesn’t. Words such as “adolescent” seem to be carefully chosen, to make us feel that his opinions are the unfounded opinions of youth.  This again is based upon the myth of the unruly subversive youth who acquire common sense thinking only in maturity.  He “availed himself of a fine education”, again, the careful use of words connotes a sense that this “immigrant” is out to take what is freely offered, that we the generous British people give, whilst immigrants only take. For the opposite of give is take. O’Shaughnessy asserts that “great rhetoric is substantially a co-production between sender and receiver.” [5] In the case of the Daily Mail, the readership are generally middle aged and older, and in view of the bias of the paper towards conservative ideology, the readership probably subscribe to similar ideas about national identity.

The Telegraph followed up a few days later with the headline “Whether he hated Britain or not, Ralph Miliband was one the Cold War’s bad guys” [6] Brogan tells argues that the reaction to the Mail is borne out of the fact that we have developed “social and political amnesia”[7] We have forgotten about the “USSR’s dream of Soviet world domination”[8]  and the “struggle between freedom and communism.”[9]  He writes of the struggle with the red tyranny, the existential threat to Britain as a nation, and that “Miliband was on the side of those who wanted to turn Britain into something dreadful” [10]  This notion of the “something dreadful” operates in a way that relies upon the reader to have been subject to previous ideology and myth. As Barthes reminds us in Myth Today “Mythical speech is made up of a material which has already been worked upon so as to make it suitable for communication… because all materials of myth presuppose a signifying consciousness”[11] Brogan writing in the Telegraph need only mention the Cold War, he need not explain any back story, because he presupposes that we share his opinion about Cold War politics, that we have agreed that Communism as a word signifies to us, what it signifies to him.  If a word is a sign that signifies a concept, that concept is not always universally agreed. In the case of “Communism” as a signifier, the concept that the word signifies is contested precisely because it has been subjected to propaganda.


The Telegraph decided to judge Ed Miliband by labelling his father as an extremist. As Parenti asserts “Like all propagandists, mainstream media people seek to prefigure our perception of a subject with positive or negative label” [12] Ralph Miliband is an “extremist” , when we share the same understanding of the concept signified by the sign, then “extremist” comes to signify to us negative connotations. Had the Times chosen instead to use the word radical, the meaning behind the signifying word, would be open to interpretation in a way that the word extremist isn’t. By choosing the word “extremist” Brogan precludes either our critical thinking or any disagreement about the concept he is sending to the receiver. We understand the message because we have a preconceived and shared understanding of the terms he uses. O’Shaughnessy describes how labels become naturalised over time so that eventually people do not perceive it as opinion but as objective fact, labels can be positive or negative but “an ideology or perspective is inscribed within them.”[13]


Good propaganda to some extent relies upon the reader to interpret the ambivalent into the concept, for it is only when the method employed, the intended message hidden from plain sight that propaganda can pass for fact. As O’Shaughnessy argues “many have persuasively if not conclusively claimed that the most effective arguments are essentially co-productions. In this view an argument is all the more convincing if the audience is led to draw the conclusion for itself.” [14] If meaning is invited and not imposed the reader may feel that having interpreted the meaning, the meaning is correct because it reinforces what he feels to be correct, what goes unnoticed is the way in which signifiers, rhetoric and myth have influenced his conclusions. It is only when we are faced with something which is obvious propaganda that we may be forced to critically engage with it. Like ideology, propaganda is at its most pernicious and effective when it remains virtually undetectable, or it seems to us to reflect our already existent ideas and reinforces what appears to be our own non-coerced opinion, in which case we don’t accept that it is propaganda.


Several days after the Mail published the original piece they followed up with a second, this time with the bold and unrepentant headline “We repeat: This man did hate Britain”[15] and it went on to say “So how did he view this country? As an already politically aware 17 year-old, he wrote in his diary “The Englishman is a rabid nationalist”[16] This was followed by another article Headed “An evil legacy and why we won’t apologise”[17] In this article it is claimed that Ed Miliband is responsible for bringing his father into the current debate on politics with his references to how Miliband senior escaped Nazi persecution by fleeing to England. However it could be argued that The Mail seized upon the opportunity to discredit Ed Miliband by the use of propaganda about his father and myths around nationalism and external threats. Media bias doesn’t happen in some random way. Michael Parenti in America Besieged writes that “The built in biases of the corporate mainstream media faithfully reflect the dominant ideology, seldom straying into territory that might cause discomfort.”[18] Levy and The Mail are able to reproduce the dominant ideology using the myths around the war and nationalism.  What has been included and excluded from this discourse, combined with the way in which the reader is presupposed to recognise the signs and understand the message, assumes that the reader is familiar with these ideas. British radicalism is dismissed in favour of familiar tropes about Stalinism and the Cold War, and threats to the British way of life.  For anyone not suffering “social and political amnesia” The Mail’s dalliance with outsiders who actually threatened the national interest in the form of Hitler and Mussolini, and its exclusion from this discourse serves to highlight the ideological motivations of the Daily Mail, and make their attempt at propaganda obvious. The provocation or motivation behind the original story was a reactionary attack to discredit Ed Miliband by association to his father’s “evil legacy” and a response to Ed Miliband’s simple comment to a Labour supporter that he intended to bring back socialism to the Labour Party. The “evil legacy” is the spectre of Communism, a sign or concept already shaped by myth to signify a threat to our way of life. The ideologues at The Mail simply couldn’t countenance the idea that the word socialism should connote anything other than negative associations.





[5] O’Shaughnessy, N,J. Politics and Propaganda Course Reader






[11] Barthes,R. Myth Today and The Great Family of Man in Mythologies Course Reader



[13] O’Shaughnessy, N,J. Politics and Propaganda Course Reader

[14] O’Shaughnessy, N,J. Politics and Propaganda Course Reader







[18] Parenti,M. America Besieged (City Lights Books, San Francisco 1998),150.




Barthes,R. Myth Today and The Great Family of Man in Mythologies Course Reader.–We-repeat-This-man-did-hate-Britain.html–We-repeat-This-man-did-hate-Britain.html

O’Shaughnessy, N,J. Politics and Propaganda Course Reader.

Parenti,M. America Besieged (City Lights Books, San Francisco 1998).


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