Friday, 23 October 2009

Question Time – serious political debate or fascist farce?

The appearance of British National Party leader Nick Griffin on BBC1’s Question Time may have been viewed by some as an acknowledgement of the right to free speech, but for the hundreds of protestors outside BBC Television Studios it was nothing short of an aberration. Meanwhile for those choosing to take a moderate stance on the BBC’s decision, there could be no greater justification than the simple fact that Nick Griffin, as an elected representative of the public, has a right to appear alongside mainstream politicians if invited to do so. Unlike many others I do not believe that the BBC has afforded the BNP any additional credibility through their decision to allow Griffin to appear on Question Time. It was the election of BNP candidates to the European Parliament by ‘Yorkshire and the Humber’ and ‘North West England’ constituents that actually did this, rather than any actions taken by the BBC. Indeed as a publicly-funded broadcaster the BBC has an obligation to represent the realities of the political situation within Britain on shows such as Question Time, and thus should not be allowed or forced by any group or individual to ‘cherry-pick’ the parties it represents based on their ‘suitability’. This has been backed up by BBC Director General Mark Thompson, who acknowledged that “Question Time is an opportunity for the British public to put questions to politicians of every ideological hue”, as well as stating that the argument against allowing the BNP to appear is “a case for censorship”. Whilst some have previously claimed that that the BBC represents a predominantly left-wing view on domestic political issues, there can be no doubt that by allowing Nick Griffin to appear on its flagship political show, the BBC has proved its commitment to ‘impartiality’. Even before Griffin’s arrival there had been a plethora of objections raised against his appearance on the panel. Peter Hain, Secretary of State for Wales described the BBC’s decision as “one of the biggest mistakes in its proud history”, adding that “the gift of credibility will last him [Griffin] a lifetime”. The BBC itself saw significant internal unrest over the decision, with one senior correspondent pointing out that “public servants can be sacked for membership of the BNP and yet the BBC wants to give them airtime with the main political parties”. Before the event there was considerable doubt as to whether anyone from the Labour Party would appear alongside Nick Griffin, given the custom that “Labour does not share a platform with the BNP”, and the fact that a number of Cabinet MPs had expressed disquiet about having to appear alongside BNP representatives.

In the end the Question Time panel was composed of Labour Secretary of State for Justice Jack Straw, Conservative peer Baroness Warsi, Liberal Democratic Home Affairs spokesman Chris Huhne and playwright Bonnie Greer alongside Nick Griffin. Griffin’s arrival at the BBC was met by protesters from the Unite Against Fascism organisation, backed by chants of “BBC shame on you” and “Nazi scum off the streets”. Griffin was only able to enter the BBC compound though a back entrance due to large numbers of people surrounding the front gates and the threat of the demonstration spilling over. Despite this around thirty people managed to compromise the heightened security and enter the building itself, before being halted at the reception and forcibly ejected. Griffin’s reception inside was no less vociferous, with large sections of the audience booing his entrance and many of his responses to their questions. Once the show began it quickly became abundantly clear that the other panellists were enforcing a pre-arranged strategy to prevent Griffin communicating his views to the audience. In what may have appeared to some, and certainly did to myself, quite counter-productive Straw and Warsi in particular attempted at every question to interrupt the BNP leader, and stop him being able to give a satisfactory answer to the majority of questions he was asked. I feel this was hugely misguided on the basis that if the members of the panel had let Griffin answer questions fully, he would have been more likely to discredit himself by accidentally revealing the BNP’s true position on issues of race, ethnicity and homosexuality and break his veneer of acceptability and legitimacy. I feel it was the other panellists who unfortunately discredited themselves, as they were seen to bully Nick Griffin and attempt to suppress his right to reply. I would imagine that the majority of ‘neutral’ spectators would have felt sympathy with Griffin on this basis alone. At the beginning many would have praised Jack Straw for immediately discrediting the BNP and giving Griffin the difficult task of defending its ‘honour’, when he said that “each other party has a moral compass and respects religious and ethnic differences”, yet “Nazism didn’t and neither does the BNP”. However the manner in which Straw and the other panel members, including host David Dimbleby proceeded to act towards Griffin quickly began to grate on me. Whilst I don’t agree with BNP policies and would never affiliate myself with the party in any way, I feel that no other panellist would have been treated in such a manner, and this ought to be acknowledged. It was enjoyable however to see Nick Griffin’s morally repugnant and historically inaccurate views on the Holocaust and Jewish people in general challenged, as this and the past anti-Semitism of the BNP and its predecessor the National Front often goes unmentioned.

The debate will rumble on about whether Nick Griffin should or shouldn’t have been allowed to appear on Question Time, and the ramifications of this incident remain to be seen. What is clear however, is that the issue of immigration is one which continues to divide the nation, whilst being almost completely ignored by the ‘big three’ political parties. When asked if he believed the BNP’s increased support amongst the British public was down the “misguided immigration policy of the government”, Jack Straw failed to give a satisfactory answer, completely avoiding the issue and digressing to the maximum extent possible. He then proceeded to wrongly identify the scandal over expenses as the reason for this development, showing either his ignorance on the subject or staunch determination not to confront the immigration question. Obviously he alone cannot be blamed for tactics such as these, as it seems that the Labour and Conservative parties have made it their mission to avoid talking about immigration or the public’s increasing willingness to listen to the only party, rightly or wrong, currently doing this, in favour of simply condemning the BNP. Ultimately, Nick Griffin wouldn’t have been given the opportunity to appear on Question Time if the government was making any attempt to deal with the problem of immigration; if this were the case the public would have no reason to turn to the BNP, and its hard-line members would be exposed as the racist, prejudiced, imperialist, Nazi-sympathising bigots they are. Whilst the major parties do nothing, so BNP support will rise and people like Jack Straw have to share the same platform as the BNP many more a time. The newspapers have undoubtedly focused on this story above any other, with many ministers and columnists predicting a pre-election poll boost for the British National Party, supporting the idea of Nick Griffin’s appearance on the show as an “early Christmas present”. Indeed the party has claimed that a record 3,000 people had registered to join the party in “the biggest recruitment night in its history”. Yet if the BNP’s appearance on Question Time has helped to increase their support, it is the fault of the panellists on the show and the way in which it was organised. This has essentially been proved by the number of complaints received by the BBC about last night’s broadcast; just 100 of these were objecting to Griffin having been invited to appear, whilst almost 250 believed the programme had been biased against him and conducted in the wrong manner. We can only hope Lord Mandelson’s prediction that “in the short term, he may have done himself a favour, but in the long term he has done himself no good at all” comes to pass.

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