Question Time

A pleasure watching you work, Alastair

It’s just possible that Alastair Campbell has become the first, and scariest Ghost of New Labour Past – the one who’ll cause panic among government ranks with his every media intervention. This week’s Question Time debacle is evidence of a man, newly re-converted to the opposition mindset, flying quickly out of the traps while the new boys and girls in government show no small amount of clumsiness as they learn the ropes.

Campbell, of course, is the consummate political media operator, feared, immitated and gloriously immortalised as Malcolm Tucker in The Thick Of It. Love him or hate him, his political instincts have generally proven to be second to none (with the possible exception of New Labour’s Prince of the Dark Arts, Peter Mandelson).

Yes, I’m aware of the nature of many of the things his government did while he was part of the inner-circle at the top of the Labour government. I’m aware of his role in the build-up to the senseless Iraq war and his less than glorious efforts to dismantle the BBC over David Kelly and the revolting Andrew Gilligan. And I know how his style of media misdirection while he was Tony Blair’s Press Secretary did so much to undermine trust in the political arena.

But the thing is, when he’s not doing all those things it’s still a genuine pleasure to watch him at work. His gentle invitation to Adam Boulton to lose his rag hilariously on live television (greedily accepted) was as beautiful a demonstration of the art of the wind-up merchant as you’re ever likely to see, and now his very presence on a show as instantly forgettable as the BBC’s Question Time has caused the new government to look precious and slightly paranoid within its first few weeks.

Of course, he couldn’t have known that the government were going to be so foolish about the whole thing, but there’s no doubt he grabbed the moment when it arrived, accusing the government of “a pathetic attempt to bully the BBC”. That the Grand Old Master Of Spin managed to throw this jibe in with few questioning his own history of doing exactly the same shows the skill of the man, and highlights the contrast between himself and Andy Coulson, the government’s significantly less sophisticated answer to Campbell.

Coulson is your basic tabloid bully and the disgraceful odour of phone-tapping and petulance hang around him from his days as editor of the News Of The World. Sure, being a government Press Officer is an inevitably mucky business, but this week has demonstrated the wisdom of the old hand as opposed to the misplaced arrogance of the new.

While I may not be a fan of Alastair Campbell’s time spent defending the indefensible at Downing Street, when the comparison is drawn with the current incumbent it’s a pleasure to watch a true professional at work.

A little early for control-freakery, don’t you think?

I was slightly surprised to hear that the national Tory/Lib Dem coalition refused to send a representative to sit on the BBC Question Time panel last night. The official reason given was that Labour’s panel member came in the shape of the unelected Alastair Campbell, and that the party should have sent a front-bencher to discuss policy. The result was a stand-off, with the government demanding Campbell’s removal and the BBC – rightly – pointing out that it isn’t for Downing Street to choose the Question Time panel. The other-worldly John Redwood presumably leapt at the chance to step in when the BBC came calling for a replacement.

(I should declare an interest here in that I rarely watch Question Time. I used to enjoy shouting at the television for an hour on a Thursday night, practically foaming at the mouth at the soundbites and the deceptions, but these days I’d probably rather curl up with a good book.)

The decision by the Labour Party to send a media man like Campbell, rather than a Shadow Minister, is perhaps a little odd in the week of the Queen’s Speech, but it’s nowhere near as odd as the government refusing to turn-up. Alastair Campbell is famous for his combative style, but I can’t imagine any would-be government representative would have been scared to face him (a little anxious, maybe).

Instead, this would appear to be an attempt by the new government to flex its muscles in the direction of the BBC. It is an early sign of the same control-freakery which quickly poisoned the New Labour project and I strongly hope it fails.

I’ve written before about the BBC and what an asset the corporation is to this country, and it’s no surprise to me that the Tories are attempting to get a few early hits in, using Campbell as their cover. It will be a dark prospect indeed if the Lib Dems, as coalition partners, join in the Murdoch-fuelled assault on this bastion of impartiality which is so highly regarded around the world.

The alternative to the BBC is to go down the route of Sky News, with creeping opinion-forming and skewing of the news agenda. Murdoch has ‘previous’, of course, having given birth to the ugly partisan beast otherwise known as Fox News, and incidents involving Sky’s Kay Burley and Adam Boulton have given an indication of the direction of travel in the immediate aftermath of the General Election result. The most notorious example was Boulton’s, and so here is the video. It includes some chap called Campbell…

(See also: Mark Reckons – BBC Question Time Alastair Campbell debacle)

Question Time – How Was It For You?

Although this will be my third post in a week about Griffin and the BNP I promise I’m not developing an unhealthy fixation with the far right – my immediate reaction to last night’s Question Time is that they simply aren’t that important. _46595525_qt_bbc226280 I must admit I approached yesterday’s programme with a certain amount of dread, fearing that Griffin would turn in an accomplished, well-rehearsed performance, but in the end I needn’t have worried. The BNP leader looked nervous, defensive and shifty, he fluffed many of his lines and didn’t once strike a chord with an audience who made me proud to be British.

We’re perhaps led to believe that the British public is entirely composed of curtain-twitching Daily Mail readers who are convinced we all live in a land of ‘political correctness gone mad’ and ‘elf and safety nazis’ (curse your lazy journalism, Richard Littlejohn) but it was heartening to see the way the Question Time audience, always a meticulous cross-section of the public, refused to allow Griffin to be their spokesman. Time and again he clumsily fired out a soundbite and each time he met with a wall of disdain.

The other panellists all performed well, crucially steering away from hysteria to tackle the BNP with reasoned argument, but the show-stealer for me was Bonnie Greer. She dealt with Griffin with an assured calm, most memorably with her “Got some reading for you Nick, think you need it” comment.

Today’s clumsy rebuttal operation from the BNP, inevitably accusing the BBC of bias and of putting Griffin in front of a lynch mob, just proves how poorly they think their leader performed. It also proves that the BBC were right to let Britain have this important debate.

Nick Griffin’s Question Time Appearance – How It Happened

(with thanks to The Daily Quail)

(with thanks to The Daily Quail)

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.

Phil WoolasThe 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?”

Why the BBC are right not to ban the BNP from Question Time

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 arrested during Apartheid protests

Peter Hain arrested during Apartheid protests

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.