Thursday, October 22, 2009

Mainstreaming fascism

Today, the BBC will film its Question Time episode with Nick Griffin [pdf] on the panel. Protests will be gathering outside the studio at Wood lane from 5pm, and there is already reportedly a picket building up there. I don't know how big the protest will be, but I will say this: I spent some at a stall outside Holborn station yesterday, which was petitioning against the BBC's decision. The response was extraordinary: it was one of the few times that I have seen people queue up to sign petitions. The BBC directors have been musing over various possibilities in response to this. They've got the studio audience locked down, it seems: antifascists have been meticulously vetted from the audience, while BNP members and supporters will be in attendance. Yet, they're still not completely certain of their position, so they have reportedly been considering whether it is possible to move the event forward and film the show without an audience. If that's true, why bother with the panel and chair? Just put Griffin under a spotlight and give him 45 minutes to deliver his message to the kids. It has been pointed out that the arguments over Griffin's appearance are analogous to those that erupted over Le Pen's television appearance in 1984, after which support for the Front national doubled. Now Jim Wolfreys has explained in more detail the similarities between the tactics of the BNP and FN. These involve precisely the strategy of normalisation, distancing themselves from the explicit symbols, regalia and language of the traditional far right, and tapping into more socially accepted forms of right-wing politics, such as anti-immigrant racism.

We have to take note of such tactics, and make sure as many people understand them as possible. As Michael Rosen argued in a typically sharp contribution at last night's UAF meeting, fascist strategies of dissimulation are as much what they are 'about' as Holocaust denial, white supremacy and the building of a fascist terror state. Rosen pointed out that Griffin's particular use of language cannily exploits a weakness of liberalism, namely its failure to properly unpack and interrogate the concepts that it relies on. So when Griffin appeals to 'freedom', 'democracy', 'identity' and so on, he knows that this is a mystifying language that won't be challenged by the BBC or any guests they have invited. "Freedom for whom, to do what?" is a question that won't be asked tonight. Similarly, Griffin understands something about the nature of the BBC's 'impartiality'. If Griffin lies about his position, or pretends that his organisation has nothing to do with the violent EDL (which protested recently on behalf of the BNP's right to be on Question Time), he knows that he is unlikely to be challenged, since the BBC has an established practise of largely taking politicians at their word. We are used to Downing Street correspondents telling us what the PM thinks or feels, as if it was a matter of established fact, when all that has happened is that they have received a briefing from a spin doctor telling them what the PM allegedly thinks or feels. Deference is the general tone of the BBC's political coverage. And we know from past BBC encounters with the BNP that even if they lie about widely understood matters-of-fact, they won't be confronted. Griffin understands this, and knows that he will have considerable leeway to play with received opinion. Finally, Griffin understands that what is acceptable in political language depends to a great extent on the precedent set by others. When he calls for the EU to sink boats containing refugees - basically calling for the mass murder of a civilian population - he is playing on anti-immigrant sentiments and ideas already introduced into popular language by the right-wing mass media, and by the government.

We also have to understand something about the other player involved: the BBC. Its director-general, Mark Thompson, doesn't understand what is wrong with having the BNP on Question Time. He says it would be censorship not to have the BNP on Question Time. This is a man personally responsible for refusing to broadcast the DEC appeal over Gaza, a decision he presumably does not consider to be censorship. Yet the rationale he presents is at variance with the facts and with BBC doctrine. First of all, he says that the level of BNP support demonstrated in the Euro elections is sufficient to mandate an appearance by the fascists on Question Time. This is disingenuous, since we know that the BBC have been angling to arrange an appearance on the show by the BNP for a couple of years now, well before the recent election results. Secondly, it isn't true that the only consideration here, even in the BBC's own terms, is the demonstrated electoral support of a particular party. The BBC is owned by the public - all license fee payers are 'subscribers'. For that reason, despite its paternalism and instinctive sympathy for power, it has to at least answer to the public in some way. It has developed a set of discourses and practises that interpret its public service remit - the two key ones being 'trust' and 'compliance'. Those presenting and producing programmes have to get clearance from 'compliance' - a producer, an editor, an executive - who will approve or decline potentially troublesome incidents in a programme. Rosen pointed out that one example of 'compliance' at work was exhibited in a recent programme about King George VI. Because old George had a stutter, he was depicted as having a stutter. It had to go to compliance who advised that there was 'too much stutter' in evidence. So, there is no such thing as 'free speech' in the BBC: editorial controls are vast and intricate, and in this case deferred completely to any possible concerns of George's daughter, the current tinpot monarch, and her disgusting and illiterate family. As regards 'trust', the BBC requires that viewers - subscribers, co-owners in a sense - trust whatever appears on the BBC, and everyone who works for the BBC has to commit to upholding that trust. Trifling controversies, such as the Ross-Brand affair, constituted a breakdown in compliance and a breach of trust. So, the idea that hosting a fascist politician, with an explicit commitment to purging Britain of all of its non-white citizens, is in any sense uncontroversial by the standards of the BBC itself, is utterly false. What the BBC are doing is breaking with their own conventions to promote a fascist party before millions of people.

The third party we have to understand is New Labour. Gary Younge reminds us that when we see that fascist spouting off on national television to an audience of millions, those principally responsible for disseminating the racist ideology about Muslims that the BNP so ably exploits are the New Labour hierarchy. Jack Straw, who is to appear on the show with Griffin and promises to be really rather stern with him, is a cardinal offender. It was he who didn't want to talk to a constituent who was wearing a niqab, though he evidently feels up to chatting politics with a Nazi who is committed to driving every last non-white person out of Britain. It was he who, as Jerry Dammers of The Specials pointed out at the UAF meeting, insisted that Asians should speak English in their own homes. Dammers asked: "If Straw moved overseas to a country where English wasn't the first language, would he stop speaking English to his family? Of course he wouldn't. What racism!" And Straw is a man whom we are supposed to look to as a champion of antifascism in this debate. Indeed, a whole number of dubious opponents of fascism are emerging these days. And while one is happy for the BNP to be attacked by anyone and everyone, sometimes the stench of hypocrisy accompanying such attacks mitigates their force. A particularly poignant example are those army generals who want to murder Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan, but don't want their good name to be besmirched by association with the far right. Aside form the questionable anti-racist credentials, army generals have a pretty poor record, historically on antifascism. All of this reinforces the point that one can't rely on the great and the good facing down fascism on our behalf. The tradition of antifascism that has been effective in the past has been that involving the grassroots authorising themselves and taking action independently to stop the fascists, regardless of how much the media demonised them, and regardless of how much the bourgeois politicians pleaded for such matters to be left in their hands.