Much of the day’s political discussion on the airwaves has centred around Nick Griffin’s appearance on the BBC’s Question Time tonight. Opinion still seems to be sharply divided over whether the BBC has done the right thing in inviting Griffin onto the show, with no end of voxpops either talking of ‘freedom of speech’ or ‘freedom from fascism’. As I’ve previously written, I have a great deal of sympathy with both of those arguments but ultimately freedom of speech wins it for me.
It’s perhaps worth remembering how we arrived at this point. Griffin wasn’t invited onto Question Time because the BBC have a deep-seated sympathy for his far-right views. (All sides of the political argument regularly accuse the BBC of bias, but I don’t think anyone has seriously claimed they are a white supremacist mouthpiece.) The BNP have a seat at the table because they have two seats in the European Parliament. The BBC – rightly in my view – have treated them the same way they would treat any other political party who are democratically elected, like it or not.
So perhaps the question really ought to be: “How did we, a tolerant, essentially liberal nation with a proud democratic history, create the circumstances in which such a party is able to represent Britain on an international stage?”
There are three groups of culprits here, in my opinion. The first target, and for me probably the easiest, is the print media. While I think it’s fair to point out that broadcasters have done their limited best to promote racial equality over the years, the same cannot be said of their tabloid cousins. On an almost daily basis the headlines scream ‘Immigration Out Of Control’, ‘Muslims Want Sharia Law’, ‘Britain’s Open Border Policy’ and so on. Although we all like to think that our opinions are not affected by the newspapers we read, if we’re exposed to a daily diet of the same myth eventually some of it is going to seep in. Most people who regularly read a paper stick with the same one six days a week, so if your diet consists of the Mail, the Express, the Sun or the Star the chances are you’re exposed to this kind of propaganda throughout the week. (It’s ironic, of course, that these same papers are the ones giving the BBC a kicking for promoting Griffin.)
The second ‘at fault’ group are the mainstream political parties. While all of them attack the extremism of the BNP none of them are prepared to pick a fight with the newspapers who keep peddling the myths that feed Griffin’s party. There are understandable political reasons why they don’t, but one of the things we hope to get from our leaders is leadership and unfortunately too little of it has been forthcoming on issues such as why we benefit from immigration. By being too timid to speak our leaders have allowed the debate to be framed in terms of ‘”they come over here and take all our jobs”, instead of pointing out that without immigration the economy would barely function, not to mention arguing for the wider benefits of broadening our culture.
The Labour Party has been the most disappointing in this area. One would expect a party of such proud traditions to be out there banging the drum for modern Britain. Instead they offer us Phil Woolas who seems to spend his time spewing out anti-immigration ‘initiatives’ tailored for the consumption of the Daily Mail et al. I know full well the Tories will head down the same road when their time comes, but I would expect little else of ‘the nasty party’. Labour disappoint because of all the opportunities they’ve spurned.
The last group of culprits are the public at large, every single one of us. We are the ones who have the power to tackle the BNP. We are the ones who can choose which newspapers we buy. We are the ones who decide what language is socially acceptable. How many of us challenge those who tell racist jokes in pubs? How often do we step in when we hear a ‘casual’ racist remark in someone else’s conversation? How many of us will switch off the TV and actually bother to go out and vote in those areas where the BNP find strength through ignorance? The answer is some, but not enough.
So when we feel our liberal sensibilities offended by Griffin’s appearance on tonight’s Question Time perhaps we should ask: “How exactly did he come to be there?”