Friday, 23 October 2009

In Defence of 'No Platform'

So the BBC has got what it wanted – its ratings victory for last night’s Question Time.

The British National Party received what it wanted too – an astonishing amount of coverage for a tiny fringe party and the setting of a precedent for further invitations to TV or radio debates. Racist voters will have had their prejudices reinforced about the establishment ganging up ‘their man’ (hence the sympathy for Griffin from callers on this morning's GMTV and the complaints to the BBC). Smug liberals everywhere will be happy too that the uniformly negative newspaper coverage of Nick Griffin’s performance reaffirms what they already believed.

The only losers, it seems, are people whose safety and wellbeing has been further threatened by the spectacularly stupid notion that liars have the right to claim that their falsehoods are nothing more than ‘freedom of speech’. Muslims, of course, and black people living in poor communities in places like my part of the country, in neighbourhoods like Barking, Loughton and Dagenham. People who apparently don't matter all that much to the BBC's ratings compilers.

"The most stringent protection of free speech”, said the American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, “would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic." Now let's be clear: Griffin isn’t just someone with unorthodox or unfashionable opinions but a habitual liar, the leader of a thoroughly duplicitous party that deliberately spreads fear through lies - witness the claim today that London has been "ethnically cleansed". Falsely 'shouting fire' is exactly what BBC allowed Griffin to do again and again last night – and providing him with a platform to do so in front of a national audience of 8 million is not its only disgrace.

Hiding behind arguments about 'impartiality', claiming it had an obligation to treat the BNP like any other party and then abandoning the usual format of Question Time demonstrated that the BBC Trust is quite capable of spreading its own lies. The fact that there were no questions about topical issues like the postal workers strike, the Afghan elections or the recession, as there would have been in a normal week, proves that the BBC knows full well that the BNP is not like UKIP or the Greens. So why pretend otherwise?

Throughout the week, people who should know better - including a fair number of liberal bed wetters I follow on Twitter - have been anguishing over the question of Griffin's freedom of speech as though it is some kind of difficult issue. It really isn't. Griffin, his party and everyone who supports them are free to hold whatever warped opinion they like. If they decide to write their blogs, produce their magazines and leaflets or stand out in the street and bellow their lies at the top of their lungs, that's their choice. If they incite violence in doing so then they deal with the consequences like the rest of us - either arrest or a damn good kicking, but consequences nevertheless.

Of course, blaming fascists for conjuring racism in society out of thin air, rather than recognising that the BNP and other far-Right parties simply feed off and exploit popular prejudice, makes little sense. At times you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise listening to groups like Unite Against Fascism, particularly when they give the impression that calling for the state to silence the BNP by banning it will solve everything. But deluding yourself into believing that you can defeat racism by debating with its most vocal proponents makes even less sense. Offering a platform to a party of true believers, people who will never change their views and who are prepared to lie at every opportunity, isn't going to persuade racist voters to stop scapegoating their neighbours. It instead sends a message that their racism is one equally valid opinion amongst many.

'No platform' is not about denying the right to free speech but a conscious recognition that some voices are so irrational and delusional that they don't deserve our help in reaching a wider audience. Every one of the protesters outside Television Centre yesterday understood this and, in the way yesterday's Question Time was staged, I think the BBC instinctively recognised it too.

The problem is that it simply didn't care. That's not an impartial decision, it's a purely commercial one. And whilst we all now have to live with the consequences, some people have far more to lose than the privileged members of the BBC Trust.

UPDATE: One in five 'would consider voting BNP' after Nick Griffin Question Time appearance. Thanks, Mark Byford.

2 Comments:

HarpyMarx said...

"including a fair number of liberal bed wetters"

Coldplay fans then?

Sorry, just had to get the lame Coldplay joke in.

But really good post Kevin.

The BBC gave the BNP respectability and the explanation I got from my complaint to the BBC was piss poor to say the least ('impartiality' defence was used). And the excuse being in the context of free speech but fascists smash and destroy other peoples freedoms with violence, their politics fundamentally represent hate.

No platform. No platform. No platform.

And indeed I was pissed off by some people on the left who thought it was fine and dandy to let Griffin on QT.

Oliver said...

You say that the BNP should be denied a 'platform' because it is "so irrational and delusional"... but how exactly are you measuring 'irrational' and 'delusional'? I think the BNP is irrational, but I also think the Tory party is pretty irrational too...

What I'm trying to say is, the problem with your argument is firstly, how you define 'irrationality' in politics but also secondly, and more importantly, who gets to do the defining, because whoever is being allowed to do the defining (in this case the BBC) is effectively being given the power to control what we can/can't see or hear.

This is the key problem with freedom of speech arguments, they are arguments about degrees, and at some point, if you are against total freedom of speech, you have to give over power to someone to control the degree to which freedom of speech is or is not allowed.

This to me is not what being on the left is about, being on the left is about taking away power from people who control us, not giving it to them, and especially not giving it to the BBC which is a totally unelected and relatively unaccountable body.

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