Sunday, September 06, 2009
The BBC said its guidelines require it to treat all parties impartially, adding the invitation was "consistent" with similar approaches to Green and Ukip MEPs.
A BBC spokeswoman said: "The BBC is obliged to treat all political parties registered with the Electoral Commission and operating within the law with due impartiality.
"By winning representation in the European parliament, the BNP has demonstrated evidence of electoral support at a national level. This will be reflected in the amount of coverage it receives on BBC programmes such as Question Time."
I don't think we should accept the BBC's criteria either on its own terms, or as actually indicative of how the BBC works. The corporation has already given the BNP coverage way beyond any arguable obligations, and it started doing so long before the BNP had demonstrated 'national support'. There is absolutely no obligation on them to host Griffin on Question Time. This is not about the law, representative coverage, free speech or anything of that kind - although if the BBC wants to cite those points, I think we are more than able to make the case that the BNP is lawless, opposed to free speech and doesn't believe in representation for any group its Nazi ideology deems fit for persecution. I should think it's possibly even legally problematic for the BBC to host Griffin. The BNP is in a crisis at the moment because it is facing prosecution, because its constitution breaks the law. It does not permit non-white people to join the party and therefore it practises racial discrimination. Griffin, in a carefully coded statement evoking the famous 'fourteen words' of white supremacist ideology, has suggested that the BNP may have to adapt to the law but will still seeks "to secure a future for the true children of our islands". Now, the party's hardcore, represented in both the leadership and middling layers, will probably resist this, leading to further schisms - which antifascists should fully take advantage of. But the point is that if the BNP is constitutionally in breach of the law and if, as I think is at least arguable, its various public statements regularly leave it susceptible to prosecution for incitement to violence, or racial or religious hatred (just off the top of my head, consider Cllr. Pat Richardson's statement that "a brick through the window is a British method" of expressing disagreement, 'British' being the highest commendation that such a person can utter), it is quite possibly a risk for the BBC to host Griffin. At any rate, there is no basis whatsoever in the corporation's claim that it is simply following guidelines or election laws.
On the other hand, part of the BBC's normative rationale for hosting fascist propaganda is that it must be fair and impartial, and must faithfully represent all points of view. Few readers of this blog will believe for a second that the BBC is non-biased, or that it represents all points of view fairly. The BBC has an institutional bias toward power, as we have seen demonstrated in surveys concerning its coverage of Iraq and Israel-Palestine. It has a similar bias over class issues, and is instinctively hostile to strikers, protesters, environmentalists, anticapitalists, the Left, etc. That hostility also extends to antifascists. Those who remember the coverage of the massive Welling protest in 1993, which was brutally attacked by police, will recall just how much the BBC sought to vilify the protesters and to imply that they were violent and disruptive. We shouldn't believe them when they tell us they only want to be fair and even-handed.
So, this brings us to the issue of 'No Platform'. There are many arguments circulating about this policy, concerning 'free speech' and the far right, which are confused and misleading. One point on which it pays to be absolutely clear, therefore, is that the appeal to 'No Platform' is not identical to demanding that the state ban the BNP. There might be an argument for banning the BNP, but this is a separate argument. The policy of 'No Platform' is one that trade unions, student unions, campaigning groups and other civil society organisations are asked to support and implement. It means that they will refuse to assist in promoting the BNP's message, in solidarity with the BNP's victims. It means that they will not share a platform with a fascist, or extend a platform to one.
There are some unrealistic assumptions that hamper this discussion. The first is that to 'expose' the BNP, it is necessary to 'debate' them in some context. In fact, it is quite possible to convey a realistic and persuasive description of the BNP's politics without giving them a platform. In fact, it is easier to do so for reasons that will shortly become apparent. The second is that it is actually possible to have a meaningful debate with the BNP. Their commitment to organised dissimulation suggests that it is not. This isn't incidental, nor is it just spin. Fascists have always been hostile to rationalism and to the democratic principles that underpin debate. They ardently hold that truth is established through superior force. Remember how Nick Griffin once put it to the party faithful. He argued that the BNP's voters supported "what they perceived to be a strong, disciplined organisation with the ability to back up its slogan ‘Defend Rights for Whites’ with well-directed boots and fists. When the crunch comes, power is the product of force and will, not of rational debate." A 'debate' for them is just an opportunity to say whatever will enhance their power. To take their pseudo-questions and provocations as literal propositions for 'debate' is to already concede the territory.
The third indefensible assumption is that, however unpleasant they are, it is actually a good thing to attempt to engage the BNP in 'debate'. Being basically democratic, some people want to believe that disagreements can be resolved, and hidden agendas exposed, through rigorous discussion. But, aside from the fact that such discussion as has taken place has rarely been particularly rigorous or exacting, the BNP's history and behaviour shows that it is not interested in resolving anything through discussion. In fact, it shows that the BNP is a threat to public safety more than any other political party in the UK, barring perhaps a few of the lunatic neo-Nazi sects. The more coverage and exposure they receive, the more of a threat they are.
The spate of anti-Muslim violence after the BNP's electoral successes, and the recent chaos being orchestrated by the 'English Defence League' whose founder is a BNP member, merely offer a glimpse of this. The long-term aim of the BNP is to replicate the FN's route to the mainstream. They want to gain control of state bodies, acquire representation in major public institutions, build up a membership base, and then use that power to construct a conventional fascist street-fighting machine. If you want a sense of what it would be like to have to deal with that, try asking the Roma in Italy. And it isn't too hard to figure out the logistics of how such a cadre might be built. While most BNP voters are not outright Nazis, I thought it was very interesting that 9% of them agree with the idea that “there is a major international conspiracy led by Jews and Communists to undermine traditional Christian values in Britain”. That is a hardcore Nazi belief, and nine percent of the BNP vote in the European elections is close to 90,000 people. This represents a very plausible substrate for the Nazis to recruit from, indoctrinate, take on shooting weekends, go on combat training with, and so on. At the very least, they stand a chance - if not effectively opposed - of gaining a substantial number of people who are capable of putting bricks through windows, as Cllr. Richardson recommends. To give the BNP a platform is to help them with that task. Moreover, the legitimacy this gives their politics will tend to shift the political spectrum to the right, as opportunistic politicians attempt to occupy the space in which the BNP are gaining.
The final faulty assumption, the one that is least convincing in my view, is that depriving the BNP of a platform constitutes an abridgment of their 'free speech'. By no understanding of free speech that I am aware of is any person obliged to share a platform with a fascist organisation, or to offer one to its spokespersons. In fact, in recognition of the demonstrable threat that the far right poses to even minimal democratic norms of free expression, we actually have an obligation to frustrate the BNP, to obstruct their growth, prevent them from organising, and so on. But the 'No Platform' policy doesn't even go that far: it clearly just asks people not to assist the BNP. It is only good manners.
The Guardian's report on this Question Time fiasco indicates that Labour MPs, who as a rule accept the 'No Platform' policy, might now have to adapt to the BBC's interpretation of their guidelines. This is based on unattributed statements from "aides" and a "spokesman", but it may be an authoritative claim. My sense is that most Labour MPs, even right-wingers like Denis MacShane, wouldn't be seen dead near the BNP. But if 'No Platform' is being reviewed by the leadership, who fully understand the stakes involved, this can only underline their wretched cynicism. But then this is why it was and remains crucial that 'No Platform' be a grassroots campaign, pursued by activists and trade unionists, not a formal policy susceptible to veto by PR strategists.