LONDON — Britain's Daily Mail newspaper will tell you that many things you eat can give you cancer, global warming is probably bunk and the British way of life is under threat from pernicious Eurocrats in Brussels.
The Mail is Britain's most polarizing paper, and one of the most powerful. To fans, it's the voice of old-fashioned British values and the enemy of meddling bureaucrats and stultifying political correctness. To critics it's a sensationalist, small-minded rag that demonizes feminists, foreigners and the poor.
To politicians, the Mail is a formidable force whose blessing can help deliver crucial swing votes and whose wrath is best avoided. It's not the paper's conservative bent that bothers them — in Britain, unlike the United States, newspapers are expected to have a strong political stance that comes through in news coverage as well as editorials.
But many feel the Mail went too far when it angered Ed Miliband, leader of the left-of-center Labour Party, by running a story about Miliband's late father, a leading socialist intellectual, headlined "the man who hated Britain."
The Mail warned readers that "Red Ed," who is Britain's main opposition leader and hopes to be its next prime minister, had inherited father Ralph's commitment to class warfare.
Miliband wrote a rebuttal defending his dad, who came to Britain as a teenage refugee from the Nazis and served with the Royal Navy in World War II. "I loved him and he loved Britain," Miliband wrote of his father, who died in 1994. "I know they say 'you can't libel the dead,' but you can smear them."
The paper's attack has won Miliband wide sympathy, and has brought the rare spectacle of politicians from all parties criticizing the Daily Mail.
Former Conservative Cabinet Minister Michael Heseltine accused the Mail of "carrying politics to an extent that is just demeaning."
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, a Liberal Democrat, said Thursday that "if anyone excels in denigrating and often vilifying a lot about modern Britain, it's the Daily Mail."
Clegg had a point — the Mail exudes a deep ambivalence about British society. Its successful formula is to offer readers a mix of anxiety and reassurance, spiced with a dash of sex.
Journalism professor and Guardian media columnist Roy Greenslade said the Mail is often described as the paper that "speaks for Middle England — that segment of the working class which has middle-class aspirations and wishes to defend them against all comers."
"It is vaguely anti-immigrant. It has opposed in the past social liberal moves such as gay rights," he said.
Among the things the Mail approves of are British troops, hardworking "mums and dads" and cute domestic animals. It dislikes unemployed "benefit scroungers" — especially if they're immigrants — Brussels bureaucrats, badly behaved celebrities and left-wing politicians like Ed Miliband.
In the newspaper's pages, common foods regularly turn out to cause cancer — or obesity — and climate change is treated with skepticism.
One recent headline had scientists saying "Global warning just half what we said," while another read "World's top climate scientists confess: Global warming is just quarter what we thought." Another article this week said global warming was "on pause."
Now the Mail itself has become the story.
The furor began Saturday with the article excoriating Ralph Miliband for his Marxist views. It flared again on Thursday when Ed Miliband wrote to Lord Rothermere — chairman of the paper's owner, Daily Mail and General Trust PLC— complaining that a reporter from the Daily Mail's Sunday sister paper had showed up at his uncle's memorial service this week and tried to interview mourners.
Mail on Sunday editor Geordie Greig quickly apologized for the "terrible lapse of judgment." In contrast, Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre has been silent, though he dispatched a deputy to defend the story on television.