Saturday, 24 October 2009

Question Time

This Thursday evening BNP leader Nick Griffin appeared on the BBC’s Question Time, a show where a panel of five politicians or public figures face questions from an audience made up of ostensibly ordinary people. If you haven’t already seen it then I suggest you watch it on iplayer. If you’re not from the UK then I expect it’s on youtube by now. Obviously to get such a controversial and disliked figure on Question Time was somewhat of a coup for the BBC and I’m sure the viewing figures will reflect this. I certainly tuned into the show for the first time in a while. While I’ll discuss what actually happened on the program later, I want first discuss about the issue of whether or not Griffin should have been on Question Time at all.

In the week or so leading up to his appearance, many politicians expressed their concerns that the BNP should not be given such a mainstream platform from which to express their views. Peter Hain, the Welsh Secretary was the most outspoken critic of the decision by the BBC, saying that ‘you cannot treat the BNP like all the other parties.’ I would argue that we have to. Freedom of speech and democracy are values that are fundamental to our society, to deny the BNP a platform from which to speak would be to fly in the face of those values. We may rightly abhor Griffin and his party’s views, but we cannot stop them from expressing them. Similarly we cannot stop broadcasters like the BBC giving them a platform. Freedom of speech is not up for debate, it is not something we can choose to adhere to or not depending on who’s speaking; it is an absolute which is fundamental to civilised society. This not to say of course that we should give Griffin a free hand to say whatever he wants; it’s not like question time is a party political broadcast. The only way to show the BNP up for what they really are is to enter into open and frank debate with them, and this exactly what Question Time is for. To deny Griffin a place on the panel would be to try to sweep his vile policies under the carpet, rather than face them head on and challenge his sick assumptions. We cannot try to ignore Griffin because if we do that we allow his insidious ideas to fester, rather we must face him head on and show him that we reject absolutely all that he stands for.

I’m not going to claim that this was wholly achieved on Question Time on Thursday, but it did go some way to showing exactly how vile a man Nick Griffin is. The show was not without its problems; with a clearly hostile audience and even David Dimbleby, the host, at times unable to hide his bias, it occasionally descended into farce. I would not go as far as to say, as Griffin has said following the program, that it was a ‘lynch mob’, but the atmosphere was at times rather more hostile than I would have liked. Much as we might want to take our righteous indignation out on Griffin, we have to restrain ourselves or we lend credibility to the his cause. Dimbleby needed to be seen to be more impartial; he is the moderator of the discussion, it is not his part to take sides. Because he showed such clear bias it felt like the entirety of the show was out to get Griffin, rather than engage him in a proper debate.

That being said enough was done to make Griffin come out of the evening with a few very bloody scars. The absurdity of the BNP’s concept of an ‘indigenous Briton’ was shown up on several occasions and his statement that Winston Churchill would support the BNP where he still alive was made to look absurd time and time again. Griffin repeatedly contradicted himself and dodged awkward questions. He tried and failed to squirm and slime his way out of difficult situation, trying to apply empty phrases about ‘British, Christian values’ to everything. The other panellists were having nothing of if thankfully. Overall then Griffin was made to look like a fool. His racist policies were shown up for what they are; thoughtless bigotry. The embarrassment was not as total as many would have liked, but it did enough to mean that the BNP will have lost far more than they gained from this week.

Despite some problems, then, I think we can say that Peter Hain was wrong. We should allow extremist to have a voice, both because of the principle of free speech and because we need to publicly show extremist and hate based ideologies to be absurd. We cannot ignore them; we have to battle them head on in a civilised debate. While Dimbleby may have made the debate into a farce at times on Thursday, in principle what happened was exactly what should have happened. Griffin was made to look the fool and with any luck many more people country wide will be aware of just how absurd and hateful the BNP are.

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