A Question of Freedom

So Nick Griffin has finally ‘graced’ Question Time with his presence. And guess what? We didn’t turn into the Third Reich overnight!

I’m being flippant, I know, but I was firmly on the BBC’s side in the recent furore over the BNP leader’s appearance. Yes, I find his politics – and his party – repugnant, but like it or not, he’s an elected representative, and in a democracy is therefore entitled to a say. To effectively censor him would be to stoop to the very tactics that he himself might espouse.

Not that people didn’t try. Inevitably, a large group of well-meaning – but in my view rather naïve – anti-fascist protestors were firmly camped outside the gates of Television Centre, blithely oblivious to the fact that their very presence was ensuring far more media coverage than Mr Griffin might otherwise have enjoyed. Having to be sneaked into the studio past an angry mob also lent him an unfortunate air of martyrdom, and lent unwelcome credibility to his claims of being demonised.

Obviously not at all enjoying the free publicity for what was rapidly turning into a media circus, BBC News sent an intrepid reporter the several hundred yards outside the building to talk to the protestors. “Freedom of speech has its limits,” an earnest young man declared to camera with a breathtaking lack of irony. He followed that up by actually saying that giving Griffin airtime would allow him to eventually censor freedom of speech.

Undizzied by this circular argument, our brave correspondent then talked to a similarly earnest young woman. “Would the BBC have allowed Hitler on the air a couple of years before the Second World War?” she asked, instantly evoking Godwin’s Law. Actually, yes, they probably would, and with good reason. As leader of an increasingly (and unpleasantly) influential nation, the BBC would have been lacking in principle to not have him on a forum such as Question Time, had one existed in 1937. Precisely because we don’t live in a totalitarian state, men like Hitler (and Nick Griffin) can and should be publicly called to account for their beliefs and actions.

Later, some more of the earnest young people broke into the Television Centre, thereby affording the news cameras some less than dignified footage of them being dragged out through reception shouting “Shame on you BBC!” By this time, Sky News and even CNN were giving the events live coverage, though I failed to check on Fox News to see what the ever-charming Glenn Beck might have made of it.

So, what could have been a mildly contentious event giving a right wing buffoon a little airtime to metaphorically hang himself turned into an international news event that ensured Nick Griffin is now hot news in several continents. Well done, those protestors, thank goodness you showed up to stop him getting publicity.

I’m not against the idea of opposing fascism, don’t get me wrong. But the cornerstone of opposing Nazi-style fascism is to maintain freedom, and when anyone – especially an elected representative of the people – is refused his say, you’ve instantly lost the moral high ground. And it also occurs to me that it’s tremendously patronising of the protestors to assume that the viewing public need protecting from a man like Griffin. It proceeds from the view that everyone watching is a brainless sheep who might be swayed to vote BNP just by seeing the man. For heaven’s sake, people, credit the British population with a little more intelligence than that!

Eventually, though, we actually got to see Griffin in action. No denying it, he’s smoother than your old-fashioned NF boot boy (which of course he used to be). Like David Cameron, he’s trying to copy Tony Blair in reinventing both himself and his party.

But once the questions got underway, the smooth veneer began to crack. Even having presumably prepared himself for the questions he would face – and they were predictable enough- his well-rehearsed patter began to seem more and more like an ant under a big magnifying glass.

He could plainly cope with Jack Straw’s contempt, but seemed rather less equipped to deal with the wrath of Dimbleby. Mercilessly interrupting him at well-judged points, David got him to unknowingly let slip a few howlers. Commenting on his well-publicised meeting with David Duke of the Ku Klux Klan, he first contended that the Klan (or possibly Duke himself) were ‘non-violent’, then followed this up literally seconds later by saying he was there to try and subvert Duke’s message. What, the message about ‘non-violence’?

Plenty more flat out falsehoods were obviously exposed as the debate continued. Griffin floundered on the topic of his previous Holocaust denial, lamely commenting, “I can’t explain why I used to say the things I used to say” – hardly glowing rhetoric.

He was as mealy-mouthed as ever on the subject of race, effectively avoiding the issue every time it was addressed by bandying about the now familiar euphemisms about ‘indigenous populations’, which was effectively rubbished by Jack Straw. For a man so avowedly anti-Europe, Griffin was on shaky ground referring to the ‘indigenous’ people of a nation that’s been variously colonised by the Romans, the Vikings and the Normans, to name but a few.

Predictably enough, it wasn’t so much Question Time as the Nick Griffin show, but for the most part was effective in revealing him to be the thoroughly unpleasant and slimy piece of work we knew him to be. And it was always going to do that, which is one reason why having him on the show was a rather good idea.

Even so, a couple of opportunities were missed. Part of the problem with spending the whole show focussing on contentious issues we know about the BNP is that no time was left over to ask them about issues they probably haven’t even thought about. I would have loved to have seen Griffin flounder when asked about his party’s economic policies, or what he would do to reduce the national debt.

So, was it, in the end a show full of sound and fury, signifying nothing? Ultimately, no. Griffin was given enough rope to hang himself, which he effectively did, and it seems unlikely that such a lacklustre, uncharismatic performance will gain the BNP any new support. BBC Director General Mark Thompson was absolutely right – and I’ll grudgingly admit, a tad courageous – to allow the show to go ahead despite the storm of protest. Far from ‘shame on the BBC’, it made me feel a little bit proud of them. Well, not proud enough to forgive them for Help, I’m as Fat as My Dog, but freedom of broadcasting has its limits;)

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