Question Time with the BNP: cui bono?
There’s been no shortage of strongly argued reactions to the BBC programme Question Time, starring the malodorous British National Party’s leader Nick Griffin. (You can still watch the whole thing online here.) We’re forcefully told that the BBC should never have provided this invaluable platform, a place on the BBC’s flagship Question Time panel, to the leader of a racist, fascist, anti-democratic party. No, they were right to provide an opportunity to expose and discredit this political pariah. The programme turned out to be a triumph for the BNP. No, it was a disaster for Nick Griffin and his unsavoury party. (According to the Guardian, the inimitable Peter Mandelson agrees with both the latter propositions, artfully hedging his bets:
Mandelson said Griffin, who was pilloried during the programme when he struggled to explain his denials of the Holocaust, would suffer in the end. “When the content and the meaning of what he said sinks in for people, most of them will recoil from what they heard,” Mandelson said. “In the short term, he may have done himself a favour. But in the long term he has done himself no good at all.”)
There have been other contradictory verdicts. The panel and the audience exposed Nick Griffin’s ugly ideology and repeatedly hit him for six. No, the whole programme was a farce, amounting to a public lynching that could only evoke reluctant sympathy for the beleaguered victim. Question Time was right to depart from its usual format and concentrate almost the whole of its allotted hour to denunciation and exposure of the BNP. No, the paucity and ugliness of BNP policies would have been much more effectively exposed if we had been allowed to hear Griffin and his fellow-panellists answering questions on, for example, the postal strike, Afghanistan, the recession and the banking crisis, unemployment, and the Pope’s bid to poach reactionary parsons from the Church of England — all topics that would undoubtedly have been debated in a routine Question Time programme. And so the argument has continued across the media and the blogosphere.
No less a person than the Editor of the admirable blog, LabourList, is in no doubt where he stands:
Nick Griffin’s smug, sneering performance on Question Time was met with near unanimous mockery in the BBC studio, from the other panellists and now from the media and political blogosphere.
The BNP leader sweated, ticked and fumbled his way through the show from the start and was clearly out of his comfort zone and out of his depth. He also betrayed his true bigotry in a flurry of ill-considered outbursts…
(Alex Smith, http://www.labourlist.org/griffin-on-question-time-the-verdict)
But he quotes Matthew Parris in the Times:
Nobody dared try what, if it could have been done, would have been the most devastating tactic of all, and perhaps the only tactic that would have done Mr Griffin any real harm: to brush him aside as a small man, enlarged by the anger of his enemies.
Can all these commentators have been watching the same programme?
Not usually one to shirk sticking my neck out, I venture to disagree with most of the above. The following propositions seem to me virtually self-evident, anyway to any democrat who watched the programme:
1. The BBC was right to invite the BNP to take part in Question Time. The BNP won around 6% of the votes at the latest European Parliamentary elections and gained two seats. It is winning seats in local government elections. It’s not for the managers of the BBC to decide which electorally significant political parties should be permitted a chance to explain their policies and principles in a programme which has acquired an institutional status as a kind of political hustings open to every legal party which commands perceptible public support. If the BNP is to be excluded by the BBC as politically objectionable, which other party will be next?
2. The BBC was however wrong to represent the inclusion of a BNP representative in the programme as some kind of colossal media and political earthquake, trailing it for many days in advance and afterwards as a broadcasting landmark, instead of what it should have been: another routine current affairs programme in which another small minority party would be taking part, just as the Greens and UKIP occasionally do. In its greed for ratings, the BBC dug a deep hole and promptly fell into it.
3. The BBC made another disastrous mistake in choosing to abandon the programme’s normal format, deliberately turning it into a public trial of Griffin — indeed, more a lynching than a trial, for some degree of fairness is required in a trial, including the right of the accused to defend himself without bullying interruptions. Not only were all the other panellists and apparently the large audience hand-picked to give Griffin a hard time: David Dimbleby, as chairman, abandoned all pretence of impartiality and instead appointed himself Grand Inquisitor-in-Chief. Griffin’s attempts, however ham-fisted and objectionable, to explain his and the BNP’s beliefs and policies and to defend himself against the unremitting assault were constantly interrupted by shouting and hectoring from Dimbleby, Jack Straw and Chris Huhne, and by the audience lynch mob. Only the women panellists, the Conservative shadow communities minister Baroness Warsi, and playwright and critic Bonnie Greer, spoke coolly, rationally and even reasonably courteously, thereby inflicting much more damage on Griffin than the over-excited bawling of the males.
In the programme that followed Question Time, ‘This Week‘, Andrew Neil observed that:
The danger tonight was that the British people, famous for their fair-mindedness, saw one man being beaten up by five other people on the panel, including the presenter, and by an audience that was overwhelmingly hostile to him.
That seems exactly right. When a programme is so arranged that decent people begin to feel a hint of sympathy for a horrible, mendacious, dangerous fascist like Nick Griffin, someone somewhere has badly blundered.
4. The principal benefit of BNP participation in the programme should have been to give us all an insight into the reasons for the BNP’s qualified success in attracting around a million votes at the last EP and local government elections: to help us identify what it is about BNP utterances that attracts so many people, and what needs to be done to counter that attraction so as to return its adherents to support for the democratic parties. Regrettably, this BBC-organised shouting match provided little if any such benefit. Griffin gave a number of clues between the interruptions to what it is that has started to attract more support for his party , but sadly few of them were followed up by the panel or the audience:
- It’s always been clear that unease over immigration, especially among Britain’s white working class, has driven substantial numbers of voters, few of them convinced fascists or even in most cases bigots, to support the BNP, feeling that none of the mainstream parties either acknowledges the resentments they feel and problems they face, or proposes any concrete action to address them. Some of the things Griffin said about immigration were potentially interesting. A black member of the audience spoke movingly about Britain being his home, and the country he loved, asking the highly pertinent question: Where would you want me to go? Griffin replied, strikingly, that the questioner would be able to stay: those whom the BNP wanted to send home were those who were in the country illegally. This seemed to contradict his other remarks about giving the country back to its “indigenous” inhabitants, but this remarkable contradiction was never followed up, the panellists and most of the audience preferring to compete with each other in establishing their anti-fascist credentials. So we never got to the bottom of BNP policy on the repatriation of immigrants. Jack Straw, whose whole performance I thought lamentable, even seemed to be denying that the government’s policies and actions on immigration were a source of anger and resentment that benefited the BNP. Baroness Warsi, by contrast, was commendably frank on this neuralgic issue.
- Griffin’s concise list of Islamic beliefs and practices which he described as incompatible with traditional British values will have struck a chord with many viewers. A reasonably impartial chair would have invited a rebuttal, perhaps from one of the Muslims in the audience. Instead, Griffin’s charge went unanswered. Another couple of thousand votes for the BNP next time as a result, perhaps?
- Jack Straw opened the programme with an interminable, if well-intentioned, lecture about the part played in the second world war by Asian and African soldiers fighting and in many cases dying in the battle against racist fascism of the kind represented by the BNP. Griffin replied denying that he was now or had ever been a Nazi, adding that his father had fought in the RAF during the war while Jack Straw’s father had been in prison “for refusing to fight Adolf Hitler” — irrelevant, of course, to Straw’s actual accusation, but effectively deflating Straw, with the result that Griffin appeared to have won this first round. (The colourful descriptions by some commentators of Griffin as looking scared, sweating and shaking, anxiously licking his lips and failing to measure up to the challenge, seem to me unduly coloured by wishful thinking. Griffin’s unattractive and inappropriate half-smile no doubt revealed his nervousness: but the fox can be forgiven a degree of nervousness as the huntsmen and the hounds encircle him, baying enthusiastically for his blood. In general, given the grossly uneven nature of the contest, he actually acquitted himself pretty well. Straw seemed to me much more nervous, or perhaps more excited than nervous: and he was plainly there as Master of the Hunt, with precious little to be either nervous or excited about.)
- Griffin said he felt there was something ‘creepy’ about public displays of affection between gay men. That’s clearly a reflection of unacceptable homophobia, to be unreservedly condemned. But we kid ourselves if we fail to recognise that to numerous viewers his remark would have sounded like a rare and welcome defiance of ‘political correctness’, articulating what many otherwise perfectly decent people feel but are afraid to say.
- Griffin’s robust demand for the abandonment of the pointless war in Afghanistan and his indictment of Jack Straw for his part in initiating the disastrous war in Iraq ticked many boxes. There are certainly other politicians belonging to more reputable parties who take the same line, but neither of the major parties condemns both wars outright or demands the immediate withdrawal of our soldiers from Afghanistan. Several Brownie points to Griffin here: the unspeakable saying the unsayable.
- Griffin was notably shifty on several matters, most of all about the holocaust. Dimbleby tried to press him on this, but all he would say was that he had never been convicted of holocaust denial. Neither the panel nor the audience managed to get a conviction on this, either; so some viewers would have concluded that the charge was ‘not proven’ — which, at any rate under English law, means an acquittal, however undeserved.
I conclude that most of those who saw Griffin as discredited and demolished by the programme are people who would never in a million years be tempted to vote for or support the BNP: people who were already well aware of Griffin’s disgraceful record of extremist and undemocratic utterances, of a degree of racism that unquestionably amounts to fascism. But these are not the people whose responses to the programme are important or interesting. What was the response of those who are by no means fascists or racists but who feel increasingly neglected by all the mainstream political parties — especially perhaps by the Labour Party, which under New Labour has seemed less and less like the champion of or spokesman for the working class, the poor and vulnerable, those at or near the bottom of the heap? Perhaps the answer to that disturbing question lies in the evidence of the first opinion poll and other worrying statistics: a YouGov poll in the Daily Telegraph says that 22% of the people questioned would “seriously consider” voting BNP, more than 240 complainants to the BBC felt the show was biased against the BNP (while only around 100 complaints were about Mr Griffin being allowed to appear on Question Time), and the BNP claims that 3,000 people registered to join the party during and after the broadcast — no doubt a wild exaggeration, but….
So there’s a strong likelihood that the BNP was a net beneficiary of the evening’s antics. Does this mean that the BBC was wrong to have Griffin on the programme? No, but it was wrong to allow him to appear as the victim of a manifestly unfair contest; wrong to adopt a format which prevented viewers from seeing and hearing about BNP attitudes to a range of current issues and which made it impossible for anyone to follow up Griffin’s remarks in a calm, forensic way in the course of a sensible and well regulated discussion; wrong to have built up the programme, before and after it, as a great national event comparable with the FA cup final (or whatever that’s called now) or the Grand National. The BNP has won, probably, some sympathy and support; while the rest of us have been denied any fresh insights into the reasons for the party’s growing support or any clues to how it can best be reversed. As a result of a series of bad miscalculations by the BBC, we have got the worst of both worlds.
 “David Dimbleby: (To Jack Straw) The rise of the BNP, and the reason that Mr Griffin is on this panel tonight, is because of their success in the European Parliament, because as you well know, they got two seats in Europe. Is that because of failings by your government over the last 12 years to reassure people about the scale of immigration?
“Jack Straw: I don’t believe it is… If you want to know why the BNP won in the North West and in Yorkshire in June, it was a lot to do with discontent with all the political parties, particularly over the issue of expenses.
“Baroness Warsi: I think, Jack, there’s certain things that mainstream political parties have to be honest about. And I think that answer is not an honest answer… There are real issues around poverty, around deprivation, around lack of social mobility and immigration. It is an issue. There are many people who feel that the pace of change in their communities has been too fast.”
Lady Warsi, you’re in the wrong party.