Should the BBC be as gentle as it tends to be when it has Nick Griffin of the British National Party on the show? On Monday, he appeared on The World at One, and the following messages were swiftly generated by concerned listeners.
People at the National Assembly Against Racism circulated this protest [10.12.2001]:
CALL THE BBC TO PROTEST: Nick Griffin, the leader of the fascist BNP was today interviewed on The World at One, asked to comment on Blunkett’s ‘British test’. He said that David Blunkett was ‘jumping on the BNP’s bandwagon’.
Griffin on the BBC the day after Blunkett made his comments is a demonstration of what the so-called ‘British test’ leads to: giving lifeline to a fringe fascist group. It is unacceptable that the BBC treats Griffin yet again as a legitimate commentator on race relations in Britain today.
Call the BBC to complain against their decision to interview him, providing him air time, only two weeks after their Panorama programme highlighted their leaders’ criminal records and their allegiance to the politics of the Third Reich.
Palash then commented [11.12.2001]:
What do I think? … I certainly don’t care for the hysterical phrasing of the email, but that goes with the tedious preachy “activist” territory. This bit — “It is unacceptable that the BBC treats Griffin yet again as a legitimate commentator on race relations in Britain today” — is probably a rhetorical sleight of hand. I didn’t hear the report (and on those grounds alone I wouldn’t complain to the Beeb about it unless I agreed with a blanket platform of censoring the far right under any circumstances, which I don’t). But I would imagine that they had Griffin on so as to make precisely the point that these National Assembly campaigners are making, namely that Blunkett’s statement unfortunately plays in some way into the hands of extremists. (Which doesn’t, of course, necessarily mean, in itself, that he was wrong to make the statement. In fact, there is an interesting cynical question here – does it help or hinder the far right when mainstream politicians make anti-PC, or even racist, noises, or get tough on immigration? There’s a case for saying the NF in France lost a lot of ground when the Gaullists stole their clothes in the early nineties. At least it’s useful to have a debate going on in the mainstream, if that debate needs to had, rather than to marginalise it and allow extremists to capitalise on it. Though there is the very serious converse problem that the more the mainstream parties flirt with regressive racial politics, the more acceptable those politics become.)
The core issue — about whether to exclude the far right from direct representation in the media, as advocated by groups like the Anti-Nazi League-satellite, “Media Workers Against the Nazis” — is a tricky one. But ultimately I err radically on the side of free speech, and feel that we nice folks should take the racists and neo-fascists on, without fear, in open public conflict. I used to be an ardent ANL supporter …, especially around the time when Derek Beackon was elected to Tower Hamlets Council. I’d helped to organise a holocaust memorial event for the ANL in Oxford Town Hall in 1993, with two Auschwitz survivors who’d lived in the Lodz ghetto. But I was always sceptical about the ANL’s over-zealous desire to censor “Nazis” on the grounds that it’s (a) dangerously and immorally illiberal, and (b) tactically stupid and counterproductive. This vague scepticism hardened into a firm principle when I saw a film about Chomsky, in which he defends the right to free speech of a French Holocaust-denying academic historian, and is physically attacked on American campuses by poisonous creeps from the Anti Defamation League. He argues convincingly (as an anarchist) that freedom of thought and conscience trump everything else. Now, allowing this, there’s the further question of whether the BBC should be spending any airtime on the BNP at all, not on the grounds that they’re unacceptable and shd be censored, but on the grounds that they’re tiny and tin-pot and don’t matter. (After all, the SWP are rarely invited to comment on macroeconomic policy.) Not knowing the context in which Griffin was presented, I will have to suspend judgement. But I think a blanket policy of excluding the BNP from airtime (which is what these “activists” want) would be immoral as well as tactically wrong, and would fuel the existing paranoia of the BNP and of many closet racists, who believe that their views are excluded from mainstream media representation.
I replied [11.12.2001]:
Basically, I agree with Palash’s note. He’s right to make the distinction between the question of free speech (when, if ever, is it permissible for the state to intervene to suppress speech?) and the question of whether an organisation (say, the BBC) should provide a platform for an individual (say, Nick Griffin of the BNP). Only the second question is being dealt with here.
What’s striking about the BBC’s coverage of the BNP at the moment is its schizophrenia. Nick Cohen had a good article in the New Statesman of 6 August this year criticising the BBC (in this case Today and Newsnight) for its excessively soft handling of Griffin. Rod Liddle, the silly man who edits Today, wrote in the following week to say that Today didn’t refer to the BNP as fascist “because, whatever they are, they are not a fascist organisation” (Letters, 13 August) — but he didn’t say anything to justify that opinion, and Cohen had given at least five pretty good reasons for thinking that the BNP was a significantly fascist or neo-Nazi outfit in his original piece. Yesterday’s interview on The World at One followed this pattern: there was no mention of Griffin’s criminal conviction for inciting race hatred, nor was his party described as fascist or neo-Nazi. It’s true that he was being interviewed (by Nick Clarke, I think) to make the point Palash describes above, that Blunkett’s words were music to the ears of the BNP, but it was a gentle encounter, and nothing Griffin said (some of which was quite inflammatory about Asians in Bradford) was challenged by the interviewer.
On the other hand, Panorama on 25 November presented its “exposï¿½” of the BNP which revealed it as — wait for it! — a wretched, racist, thuggish organisation whose leaders were a bunch of violent criminals, which did not have the community roots it pretends in its publicity to enjoy, and whose attempts to present a respectable face to the world (assisted, on occasion, by the choices of BBC editors) were a facade. Panorama was still careful not to call it a “fascist” racket – though the reports mentioned Auschwitz jokes, Nazi salutes and SS tapes being played at BNP rallies, and so on, which is pretty good evidence in most people’s books; but the difference between the treatment Griffin got in that programme and on The World at One yesterday was striking.
I think Palash is right that a “no platform” policy is a political mistake. A party that polls many thousands of votes should not be excluded from the airwaves simply because the majority finds them abhorrent — the Tory government’s ban on Gerry Adams, etc., was indefensible for the same reason. But I also think that Cohen is right: that interviewers should be prepared to refer to Griffin as a fascist, or as a criminal, or as a neo-Nazi, or as a habitual liar, and should introduce him as such when he appears. And if he isn’t prepared to be described in this way, he should quite reasonably be denied the chance of appearing on the radio. If the price of having the BNP on the show is that one has to play along with their strategy for gaining political legitimacy, that price is too high.
As a footnote, in case anyone thinks the cases are parallel, I don’t think Martin McGuinness should be treated in the same way — described as a “former terrorist” or “murderer”, etc. — each time he appears: the Northern Irish peace process is based on a very clear quid pro quo, that certain politicians are legitimised in return for (relative) political stability and (relative) peace. There’s nothing remotely analogous in Griffin’s case.
Cormac then wrote [13.12.2001]:
“No platform for the far-right” – that was one of the NUS conventions I could never quite get my head around. Okay, fair enough, their views are poisonous and distasteful but to ban them completely never quite stacked up. There’s something queerly paternalistic about it – like there is a floating population of ciphers out there, just waiting to be programmed with racist views. But there again, no-one ever really went through the arguments with me so I may be more sypathetic than I imagine.
It reminds me a bit of the broadcasting ban on Sinn Fein et al – in fact any peace process shows you that people you think are unimaginably bad may one day become the people you have to listen to and do deals wiith (although God forbid that the BNP ever get to that position in Britain).
I don’t know that I agree with your analysis of the French Right – there are various reasons why the FN are now a busted flush and I think Chirac’s remarks about the “odeur” of immigrants have caused lasting harm to race relations in that country (which are pretty mediaeval anyway).
What I do agree with, though, is the view that the BBC – and the press in general – should not canvass the views of the BNP on race any more than they do the views of the SWP on the budget on the grounds of their marginality. It is the journalists’ cynicism and irresponsibility that I object to rather than transgression of some ill-defined unwritten ban. But hey, I’ll be objecting to that for a few years yet.
And Dave wrote [13.12.2001]:
I like the suggestion in Chris’ email, which is certainly closer to my own beliefs than other ideas I’ve seen. For what it’s worth my own position is about 50% between Chris and the traditional “No Platform” line.
My criticism of current advocates of No Platform is that we seem to have changed the argument from the 1970s. At that time, a majority of leftists argued that Nazis should be given no platform within democratic bodies (eg should not be allowed to speak on student union or trade union platforms). Part of the argument was that these were grass-roots organisations, which could be controlled by their membership – so in the same way that their executive committees should be subject to recall, so no resources or opportunities should be provided to groups like the NF which stood for the abolition of trade unionism and social democracy.ï¿½
No Platform was then normally accompanied by an argument against calling on the state to censor people – because the state was a hostile organisation, which would use any powers to clamp down on real democrats (look at the use of the Public Order Act since 1936).
The distinction between these two arguments may escape people but it boils down to a tactical question — Who should stop the Nazis?
My criticism of current No Platform politics is that in the last ten years (perhaps since the Welling campaign) anti-fascists seem to have shifted stance from an argument about the radical observation of democratic organisations, to a ‘No Speech” position. Personally, I think that this is a tactical mistake.ï¿½ï¿½People may remember Griffin with the mask over his face calling for free speech. (Griffin is a lying opportunist — in the run up to the election, the local press actually gave his group at least as much publicity as any of the mainstream parties). Someone with politics like Griffin’s should never be gifted an opportunity to claim the morality of the defence.
On the other hand I am potentially just as concerned by the strategy of groups like Searchlight, for whom I write. I did notï¿½watch the Panorama program (which Searchlight helped to make) — but I did look at the weblog afterwards, most of which was taken up by happy, crowing Nazis. Their argument was that any publicity, especially publicity in that style, was good news.ï¿½
I guess what I’m saying sounds a bit of a mess: No Platform to Nazis + No Crude Propaganda by Liberals = an incoherent position!
Maybe my real point is that people who regard themselves as anti-fascists need to think more carefully about what propaganda actually exposes the BNP in front of themselves and their audience. I think the Nazi photos of Tyndall in the 1970s were very embarrasing and effective. I would like to see more use made of Griffin’s embarrasing mid-1980s period where he claimed that Gaddaffi was history greatest national leader. But when some stupid liberal at the BBC carries out a deadpan interview with Griffin … it seems right to me that those journalists should be subject to criticism.
What do you think?