YES, GIVE BNP AIR TIME

Nick Grif­fin will be a guest on the BBC’s flag­ship po­lit­i­cal show next Thurs­day. I look for­ward to it

The Jewish Chronicle - - Front Page - JEREMY ISAACS

‘LET TRUTH and False­hood grap­ple”, wrote Milton in Are­opagit­ica, his clas­sic ar­gu­ment for free­dom of speech. “Who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open en­counter?” The BBC has in­vited Nick Grif­fin, leader of the Bri­tish Na­tional Party, and one of its two re­cently elected MEPs, to take part in next Thurs­day’s Ques­tion Time on BBC 1. It is right to have done so. De­bat­ing with Grif­fin will be heavy­weights from the main par­ties, in­clud­ing Jack Straw. In the chair, David Dim­bleby. It should at­tract a size­able au­di­ence.

No cause for alarm here. We live in an elec­toral democ­racy. The BBC has a duty to present a full range of po­lit­i­cal opin­ion; not ev­ery lone nutter or crack­pot of course, but any group­ing that vis­i­bly rep­re­sents a seg­ment of the pop­u­la­tion.

The BNP has noth­ing like the fol­low­ing of other Euro­pean right-wing ex­trem­ist par­ties — Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, for ex­am­ple. Its sup­port is con­fined to small­ish pock­ets in mainly north­ern towns feel­ing the pinch of poverty and of racial ten­sions. It holds just over 50 coun­cil seats across the coun­try (out of more than 20,000) gain­ing be­tween 10 and 20 per cent of the votes in such places as Bark­ing, Burn­ley and Dews­bury. In 2005, the BNP got al­most 200,000 votes at the gen­eral elec­tion, peanuts na­tion­ally com­pared to the main par­ties, but a blip on the radar all the same. And this year it won two seats in the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment. Prey­ing on con­cerns over im­mi­gra­tion and jobs, the BNP re­sponds to fears the big­ger par­ties may ig­nore. Some­one has to. The BNP is en­ti­tled to a min­i­mal share of pub­lic air-time. Those who vote for them de­serve to be heard.

The jour­nal­ist’s re­spon­si­bil­ity is to present their views in con­text and, with proper rigour, to ex­am­ine what they say and chal­lenge their as­sump­tions. It is eas­ier to do that on To­day or News­night than on light­weight pro­grammes aim­ing to be user-friendly and ac­ces­si­ble, es­pe­cially to younger audiences.

Ra­dio 1’s re­cent News­beat in­ter­view with high-pro­file BNP ac­tivists, in­tro­duced as “two younger guys… Joey and Mark” (the lat­ter, Mark Col­lett, 28, is the party’s spin doc­tor) was a choice ex­am­ple of how not to do it. “Are you happy”, they were asked, “to watch Ashley Cole play for Eng­land?” Not quite. “If he wants to come to this coun­try and he wants to live by our laws, pay into so­ci­ety, that’s fine”, replied Joey. The young in­ter­viewer did not see fit to point out that the Chelsea and Eng­land full back was born in Lon­don. “He can­not say he’s eth­ni­cally Bri­tish.” Joey em­pha­sised. Again, he was not pressed.

In the 1960s, the BBC’s Di­rec­tor Gen­eral, Hugh Greene, in­sisted on im­par­tial­ity and the strin­gency needed to achieve it. But he said that, on race, the BBC could not be neu­tral; we were against racism. At Smeth­wick, in the 1966 elec­tion, se­nior BBC ed­i­tors were not sure whether to re­port na­tion­ally on the views ex­pressed there. The lib­eral con­sen­sus found rea­sons not to give racist re­sent­ments a hear­ing. They fes­tered as a re­sult.

Some­times, BBC jour­nal­ists got it, glo­ri­ously, right. I re­mem­ber a Panorama re­porter send­ing up those peo­ple who thought that if you were black you weren’t Bri­tish in an in­ter­view with the dusky Cleo Laine:

Q: Where are you from, Miss Laine? A: Southall, Mid­dle­sex. Q: Yes, but where were you born? A: Southall, Mid­dle­sex. Q: Well, but where were your par­ents from? And where were they born? A: Southall, Mid­dle­sex.

Born and bred in Bri­tain; slowly we were catch­ing on. The BBC knew what it was do­ing. Bri­tain is in many ways more comfortable with multi-eth­nic-cul­tur­al­ism to­day than it was then. Then, the first blacks to play league soc­cer were abused from the ter­races. To­day, without black play­ers, few Premier­ship clubs could raise a team. We are no doubt a more racist so­ci­ety than we think we are, but not that eas­ily pro­voked.

The best re­sponse to ex­trem­ist views is to fight them in the open, carry the ar­gu­ment to those who hold them, and let the pub­lic judge. That en­tails a prop­erly con­ducted dis­cus­sion. No BNP in­ter­views, please, with Jonathan Ross. But Ques­tion Time, with David Dim­bleby in charge, should, even al­low­ing for the volatile stu­dio au­di­ence, shed more light than heat.

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