This is a difficult one for sure. The BNP are clearly a malign, divisive force for evil, targeted at the ignorant and the nasty, and it will be highly uncomfortable for many of us to see their leader, Nick Griffin, sitting on a BBC Question Time panel alongside the representatives of democratically constituted political parties – parties whose membership is open to all, irrespective of colour or racial origin. And I do understand that instinct within many who feel that the BBC, or any other broadcaster, should not be giving these racists the oxygen of publicity.
Peter Hain is a case in point. No one can dispute his credentials as a campaigner for racial equality, having first reached the public consciousness in the fight against Apartheid, but I believe he is wrong to raise the spectre of legal action over Griffin’s Question Time appearance (BBC: BNP debate ‘illegal’, warns Hain).
For me, the simple part of the debate boils down to freedom of speech. In our society all views should be free to be aired and argued with, provided there is no physical threat to the freedom of others as a result. This can be an ugly concept at times – as the furore over Jan Moir’s deeply regrettable column on Stephen Gately’s death demonstrated last week – but it is one we should all be prepared to defend. Let’s not forget that when our forebears went to war against the Nazis seventy years ago one of the things at stake was freedom of speech, the lack of which was a feature of life under a far right government obsessed with racial theory and the subjugation of supposedly inferior races. (Sound familiar?)
That, for me, is the easy part of the argument. What is much harder is having to sit through an exuberant Griffin firing his nasty soundbites to a wider audience than he’s previously been accustomed to. Unfortunately that’s the downside of democracy. But that does lead me to ask the question “What would Griffin want the BBC to do?”.
My guess is that he would absolutely love it if the BBC pulled the plug on his Question Time appearance. Not only would he not have to sit through a public scrutiny of the swivel-eyed nonsense his party spouts, but also he will receive acres of coverage in the print and broadcast media which may, perversely, fuel a sense of outrage and injustice that his voice will not be heard. You can almost hear the soundbites now: ‘Liberal bias in the media’, ‘The supression of the voice of our indigenous people’ and so it will go on.
So while Thursday night’s Question Time may well be uncomfortable viewing, we must hope that the panellists and the studio audience ‘do a job’ on Griffin in a symbolic arena of our democratic rights. If they don’t pull it off we can console ourselves that the BBC did the right thing, and that the alternative would have been so much worse.