BNP on Question Time? Why not?
‘Let Truth and Falsehood grapple”, wrote Milton in Areopagitica, his classic argument for freedom of speech. “Who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”
The BBC has invited Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party, and one of its two recently elected MEPs, to take part in next Thursday’s Question Time on BBC 1. It is right to have done so. Debating with Griffin will be heavyweights from the main parties, including Jack Straw. In the chair, David Dimbleby. It should attract a sizeable audience.
No cause for alarm here. We live in an electoral democracy. The BBC has a duty to present a full range of political opinion; not every lone nutter or crackpot of course, but any grouping that visibly represents a segment of the population.
The BNP has nothing like the following of other European right-wing extremist parties — Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, for example. Its support is confined to smallish pockets in mainly northern towns feeling the pinch of poverty and of racial tensions. It holds just over 50 council seats across the country (out of more than 20,000) gaining between 10 and 20 per cent of the votes in such places as Barking, Burnley and Dewsbury. In 2005, the BNP got almost 200,000 votes at the general election, peanuts nationally compared to the main parties, but a blip on the radar all the same. And this year it won two seats in the European Parliament. Preying on concerns over immigration and jobs, the BNP responds to fears the bigger parties may ignore. Someone has to. The BNP is entitled to a minimal share of public air-time. Those who vote for them deserve to be heard.
The journalist’s responsibility is to present their views in context and, with proper rigour, to examine what they say and challenge their assumptions. It is easier to do that on Today or Newsnight than on lightweight programmes aiming to be user-friendly and accessible, especially to younger audiences.
Radio 1’s recent Newsbeat interview with high-profile BNP activists, introduced as “two younger guys… Joey and Mark” (the latter, Mark Collett, 28, is the party’s spin doctor) was a choice example of how not to do it. “Are you happy”, they were asked, “to watch Ashley Cole play for England?” Not quite. “If he wants to come to this country and he wants to live by our laws, pay into society, that’s fine”, replied Joey. The young interviewer did not see fit to point out that the Chelsea and England full back was born in London. “He cannot say he’s ethnically British.” Joey emphasised. Again, he was not pressed.
In the 1960s, the BBC’s Director General, Hugh Greene, insisted on impartiality and the stringency needed to achieve it. But he said that, on race, the BBC could not be neutral; we were against racism. At Smethwick, in the 1966 election, senior BBC editors were not sure whether to report nationally on the views expressed there. The liberal consensus found reasons not to give racist resentments a hearing. They festered as a result.
Sometimes, BBC journalists got it, gloriously, right. I remember a Panorama reporter sending up those people who thought that if you were black you weren’t British in an interview with the dusky Cleo Laine:
Q: Where are you from, Miss Laine? A: Southall, Middlesex. Q: Yes, but where were you born? A: Southall, Middlesex. Q: Well, but where were your parents from? And where were they born? A: Southall, Middlesex.
Born and bred in Britain; slowly we were catching on. The BBC knew what it was doing. Britain is in many ways more comfortable with multi-ethnic-culturalism today than it was then. Then, the first blacks to play league soccer were abused from the terraces. Today, without black players, few Premiership clubs could raise a team. We are no doubt a more racist society than we think we are, but not that easily provoked.
The best response to extremist views is to fight them in the open, carry the argument to those who hold them, and let the public judge. That entails a properly conducted discussion. No BNP interviews, please, with Jonathan Ross. But Question Time, with David Dimbleby in charge, should, even allowing for the volatile studio audience, shed more light than heat.