Saturday, 17 October 2009

Little Nicky: A question of free speech or home entertainment?

by Peter Manning - guest contributor

As I am sure you know Nick Griffin is on Question Time next week. There has been a lot of fuss among the liberal left about the fact that the BBC is providing a platform for a far-right group to promote its agenda on a popular show that always does well in the ratings. The BNP website has, in fact, already installed a countdown clock, as if welcoming in some kind of apocalyptic final showdown; Straw and Griffin, poised to go head to head (I assume with Dimbleby acting as some kind of burlesque referee). I don’t think Griffin knows Straw has impaired eyesight; I don’t think Straw knows he is facing a parody of Stephen King’s ‘IT’ (principally manifest as a clown, but sometimes also taking the form of people’s deepest fears). If we accept that the limit of free speech within a democratic society is realised exactly at the propagation of wholly undemocratic ideas then we should quite reasonably conclude that a publicly funded body should not allow this farce. But a farce is what it will almost certainly be, and, I think, it may be a useful one.

I personally can’t take Nick Griffin seriously; he does actually remind me of an angry clown. For the record, I am completely aware that Griffin’s rhetoric is not only offensive, but also inflammatory and potentially dangerous. The recent spats of racially motivated violence and vandalism against Muslims and Jews are enough to remind us how serious a general threat the ideas of the far right in modern Britain can be.

The other panellists on Question Time have a decision to make early on next Thursday. On the one hand, they can collectively condemn Griffin from the off, quashing his attacks wherever possible, bully style, at best letting proceedings deteriorate into a shouting match, and, at worst, potentially risking an exhibition in martyrdom. On the other, an alternative (albeit risky) approach may very well be to let Griffin enjoy the platform, abuse it even. By keeping disagreement and correction firm but mild – parental, soothingly patronising even – the panel can allow Griffin to be the only farce on show. Thinking back a year or so ago, Joe Biden’s strategy in the Vice-Presidential debate showed that this can work. Biden respectfully allowed Palin to expose her own cognitive deficiencies. I am obviously not trying to compare the politics of Sarah Palin and Nick Griffin; one is an extremist power-hungry maniac, and the other is… Er…

The point is that Griffin’s ideas should not be taken seriously, even if they are by some groups that are presently feeling disenfranchised from the public sphere. Surely we should be addressing the roots of that marginalisation, rather than assuming swathes of the population are either innately racist, or too stupid to spot someone making a public fool of them self? This is not ‘Weimar Britain’, despite the BNP’s preference for the population transfer of all non-indigenous persons (that is, essentially, all of us – can the last person in Britain please turn the light out?). The fact that the BNP website seriously suggests that ‘overpopulation’ – a direct result of immigration – is ‘the cause of the destruction of our environment’ shows that Griffin can quite capably show the fallacies of the BNP attack without any help, and quite on his own terms.

The great thing about the UK is that we (generally) have an understanding of public citizenship according to secular and non-ethnic/racial/gendered criteria. That is something that – dare I say it – we can be proud of, and something that has taken many hundreds of years to establish. Yes, we live in a culture that en masse consumes Simon Cowell as entertaining, and yes, sometimes the public is not critical enough of blindingly obvious blights to our society (the Royal Family). But there is a tendency on the liberal left to err toward a rhetoric of condemnation which, in situations like the forthcoming BNP Question Time appearance, further inhibit the collective critical conscience, rather than stimulating it. In some situations this can be helpful, crucial even (on climate change perhaps). But the public needs to be able to make its own judgement on Nick Griffin, in many ways just to illustrate clearly what political apathy can lead to. In making that judgement, I am convinced that the public will see Griffin next Thursday for what he is: an angry (and dangerous) clown.

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  1. Nick Griffin on Question Time worries me, and for one simple reason, lots of people in Britain are stupid.

    Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe the BNP as clever (and please believe me, it pains me to say so) but they do know thier target audience and boy do they know how to work them. That makes them clever. One particularly disgusting way they do this is by using overly complicated phrases that sounds, alot like inteligent accademic rhetoric, and they use this because many 'stupid brits' are unable to see past dazzling smartness to see what is being said. The phrase "voluntary repatronalisation" springs to mind, it sounds entirely plausible and 'nice', unless one has the skills to unpack what is being said which is basically that "if your not white, we send you we don't know where home is, but it aint here so get lost"

    Now what worries me is Nick Griffin on question time gives him ample opportunity to spout out such nonsense, which is just dangerous. Undoubtably the rest of the panel will do a fine job of pointing out what a prat he is, but as they are unlikely to do so by calling him a racist and explaining in nice simple terms why he is, then those 'stupid brits' just won't get it. What they will see is a guy taking about being a proud brit and then see him get shouted down. Its worrying.

    I really hope that by him being on question time, it will be an opportunity for people to lay bare just how disgusting he is. I just fear that in the main it will go the heads of the very people who need to hear it.

  2. To be completely honest I haven't yet made my mind up on this issue. I detest the BNP. I detest that I'm being represented in Europe by a party that would remove me from the country of my birth(I'm not clear where they would send me) if they ever came into power, but then there's that whole pesky free speech issue.

    All that aside, what really really scares me is that because Nick Griffin is bigoted and disgusting we make an automatic assumption of stupidity. Griffin graduated from Cambridge university. He transferred from the NF into the BNP in 1995 and within just four years became the leader of the party. Next, he dedicated the last decade to successfully dragging the party out of the shadows and making it into a viable electable political party.

    Nick Griffin is vile, but he most certainly isn't stupid and any assumption to the contrary will be to our downfall and his continued success.

  3. I think the point is that the BNP appeal is principally emotive; this is why it taps into the anxieties of disenfranchised white working class groups. Obviously they are very clever when it comes to manipulating these anxieties. At the same time, QT is about debate and reason. I think my article rests on two points; firstly, that if the QT panel round on Griffin in a slew of 'ranty' condemnation, we actually end up playing by his rules. The last thing we want is a hysteria match, Griffin would obviously come out of it well by looking victimised, which is exactly what he wants. If we are more restrained and actually allow him to try to substantiate some of his claims, I think he will struggle; particularly if we keep correction to the facts and not about the person. I think my second point is a more philosophical one: I am tempted to agree with the suggestion that there are a lot of stupid people in Britain. But even if this is true, stupid people also have a right to make their own minds up about political issues. There is a huge danger - in my opinion - if we on the left start thinking we have a monopoly on political ethics. Of course we have to make our case - it would be wholely irresponsible not to - but we have to be cautious and democratic about the way that case is made in order for it to be persuasive.

  4. I too am unsure of my position on this issue. On one hand it could act as a legitimising force, anchoring an (albeit limited) influence a little further into the mass conciousness by being able to call themselves a party of 'policies' rather than just 'rhetoric'.

    On the other hand, a blatant exposure of their ethnically supremecist mentality could dislodge the support of those were simply frustrated that they represented an unheard public with socio-economic (not ethnic) problems.

    However, my issue is the fact that historically not enough has been done on QT to support the concept of debate. The panelists position themselves according to public interest (so a little Left here, a little Right there, and Central on that one) - which causes an ideological flakiness. For example, the current position on immigration is linked to the war on terror (islamophobia as well as any other ethnic behaviours which could diminish the cultural power of the dominant group) - and this is an absolutely appalling indictment of this country and it's politics and it's so-called democracy and it's so-called tolerance and it's so-called rejection of ethnic supremacy.

    Therefore, my point is, without ideological conviction - e.g. "This society is based on ethnic heterogeneity/We have a moral obligation to the disadvantaged in the rest of the world too" - there will only be attempts to form a consensus with Nick Griffin - "Yes, we agree that students from countries such as Pakistan and Nigeria should suffer a disproportionate amount of immigration checks, which may result in a disproportionate amount of exclusions from this great country" - of course, just not in those words!).

    Maybe I'm just so far Left that I am unwilling to form a consensus on these principles. Or maybe Nick and his henchmen are so far Right (and exhibit so much virulence) that any attempt to have them in a forum like QT just forces the centre to shift towards their position. Or maybe this country is already tilted towards that extreme so that an engagement with Nick Griffin will emerge 'fruitful' - "Look how democratic and intelligent we are! We can have a debate with the Far Right and come out looking balanced!" - to say the least...

  5. " maybe Nick and his henchmen are so far Right (and exhibit so much virulence) that any attempt to have them in a forum like QT just forces the centre to shift towards their position."

    That is the nail well and truly hit on the head!

  6. I think Anoushka raises a very salient point about the way that fringe views can shift the political consensus, although I disagree with the proposition that this applies specifically to the QT issue. The reality is that we have already had the PM himself playing the nationalist card with all the recent 'British jobs for British workers' nonsense; right wing populism has already been in vogue for mainstream parties for a while; we shouldn't get completely sidelined by the BNP issue when this tendency is also pervasive. I am concerned about the way this is indicative of a skewed consensus, but I still disagree with Peter Hain's suggestion that the BBC is perpetrating some gross and illegal sin here; we have to look at this s an opportunity to discredit the BNP.

  7. I consciously reserved my comment for after the event because, while I always supported the BBC's decision and looked forward to last night's Question Time with anticipation, I still had a slight fear that the national TV audience platform might provide Griffin and the BNP with a platform upon which he could further deceive the public as to his real views and achieve further legitimisation of his 'political' party.

    My fears were unfounded.

    What happened last night was brilliant. I anticipated it would be after witnessing the relentless grilling David Dimbleby gave to Griffin after the European Elections earlier in the year. But to see jack Straw, Bonnie Greer and even a Tory (who did remarkably well) calculatedly ridiculing his views and taking him to task on his past-utterances and core beliefs was very important for the British public to see. I wouldn't say that Question Time surpassed my expectations as I think the panellists and audience could have gone even further in destroying his already murky reputation. I particularly feel the issue of what indigenous Britishness means could have been taken further - Bonnie Greer explained the Roman period, but when Griffin mentioned English, Scots, Welsh and Irish somebody should have pointed out the mass waves of migrations from Germany (the Angles and Saxons), France (the Normans) and Scandinavia (the Vikings) which also constitute the genetic make-up of pretty much all British people. This point could have been used against Griffin when he tried to deny that his stance on immigration had anything to do with whether the migrants were white or non-white. Clearly it is and clearly Griffin would have no problem with migrants from America, Australia, New Zealand etc. as long as they were all white and all right wing.

    Last night's show was incredibly satisfying for me for 3 key reasons. I thought it was:

    a) brilliant that he was shown up as a liar, a cretin, a rubbish politician (no real answers to any question given) and very un-British (i.e. a fascist)
    b)brilliant TV
    c) a brilliant chance for ethnic minorities/gays in the audience (representing the wider national communities) to have their views on the BNP heard on national TV.

    It will not have done him or his party any favours when it comes to the next elections; he came across as a weird, awkward, bitter, Islamophobic, homophobic, racist former NF member and holocaust denier.

    Well done Question Time and the BBC.