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Nick Griffin’s appearance on BBC television last week ought to have been a triumph for free speech and a disaster for him and his racist views. Unfortunately, one cannot quite say that. It is true that no matter how much Griffin tried to ignore the question or change the subject, in his attempts to present himself as moderate or even reformed, his mask kept slipping; we kept seeing the vicious, smirking face of racism beneath. No reasonable person can deny that, and that much was good.
However, in several important ways the programme was a disgrace and a disaster and I watched it with growing dismay. It cannot be an accident that a YouGov opinion poll carried out the next day found that 22% of voters would consider voting BNP in a local, European or general election. This is a result, I am convinced, not of giving Griffin the oxygen of publicity but, on the contrary, of trying very publicly to stifle him.
The immense value of freedom of speech is partly that it enables reasonable people to expose through open argument what is wrong with the views of unreasonable or wicked people. It also enables individuals who are perhaps being tyrannised by the majority to defend their views rationally, without being howled down or shut up. It was a triumph for free speech in this sense that the BBC allowed Griffin’s views to be tested by open debate on television. But what happened on Question Time on Thursday fell disgracefully short of this ideal.
Griffin was tormented like a crazed bull in a bullring. The studio audience was almost entirely hostile, hurling banderillas of rage and contempt at him, and most of the panellists felt obliged to wear their indignation ostentatiously on their sleeves. The scrupulous manner of David Dimbleby, the chairman, was an honourable exception to this unpleasant form of emotional grandstanding, and so was the calm good sense of Sayeeda Warsi, the Conservative peer, but otherwise Griffin was thrown to a sanctimonious mob. To see a man savaged by mass emotion is an ugly sight, however bad he may be.
There were some very good and sharp questions from the floor, admittedly, but there were also many that were just expressions of personal contempt, a few so extreme that I am surprised the BBC allowed them. Yet the whole point of the exercise, surely, was to press him into saying what he really thinks, so we could judge it, rather than to keep hearing anguished cries against racism with which we already sympathised. Imagine — because it is essential to freedom to remember the reverse case — if Griffin were a refusenik in a totalitarian state, publicly abused in a humiliating show trial. Wouldn’t we be outraged by the spectacle?
What happened on Question Time was not rational debate. It was argument by emotion, argument by abuse. It was the very opposite of free speech. At times the show was truly infantile, with people interrupting each other in their frenzy. Dimbleby himself protested against it at one point. It struck me at the time as an emotional lynching. Griffin has since used the word, with some reason, and says he intends to take legal action. And while a man who, like Griffin, has chosen to associate with a top Ku Klux Klan leader has little right to object to lynching, the point is not about him. It is about us. We should not let ourselves become a lynch mob.
What happened on Question Time has most certainly given comfort to the enemy that is the British National party and to those tempted to join. They are now entitled to say that their man was set up and psychologically abused by the liberal establishment and by a chosen multi-ethnic studio audience. Sure enough, the BNP claims it has received thousands of new applications for membership — not, in my view, as a result of the BBC giving Griffin airtime, but as a result of the disgraceful treatment he received.
What this episode points up is the debasement of public debate everywhere. Question Time has been degenerating in recent years, like other chat shows, into an irritating cacophony of voices, an emotional gabfest. Dimbleby, his brother Jonathan Dimbleby, Nicky Campbell and other leading media figures are more than capable of running a disciplined and rational show — but this is not what the media masters think the public wants. They think the public wants tears and trembling and blood on the wall, metaphorically speaking, and I am afraid they may well be right.
That is what explains that rapid growth of the studio audience, who are not there to argue but to emote; emotion means better ratings and it has also come to suggest greater authenticity.
What Griffin’s Question Time also showed was, for lack of a better word, the pusillanimous political correctness of the BBC and its lack of moral courage — something not peculiar to it, but characteristic of most public debate today. Deciding to involve a studio audience and then rigging it, to get the sort of response that’s felt to be right, is a form of moral cowardice and it happens all the time.
The BBC should not have chosen an audience that was so deeply hostile to Griffin. The point of that can only have been an attempt to prove its non-racist credentials and must have been a red rag to any BNP sympathiser.
And why on earth would one choose politicians to debate with Griffin? Politicians have their own public relations agenda, obviously enough, as Jack Straw’s shameful and repeated evasions about immigration so damningly proved. Emotional point-scoring for that agenda will obviously be more important to most politicians than plain truth-telling, as Straw also proved.
The justice secretary kept trying to evade the urgent immigration question from the floor just as disgracefully as Griffin kept trying to evade the racism question. And, finally, it was quite astonishing, in an important and contentious national event of this kind, to choose a panellist who doesn’t seem to represent anything British very much, although she was naturalised in 1997.
What was the point of having the American-born-and-raised writer Bonnie Greer? Actually we can guess, I regret to say, and the point will not be lost upon the BNP. She was there to be black and to emote against Griffin, which she did with an offensively silly flamboyance. To abandon reason and to adopt emotion in attacking the BNP will be entirely counterproductive, as we can already see. The sleep of reason breeds monsters.
The Sunday Times | Sunday, October 25, 2009
You are right ,As a bnp member i can say this ,but you are also wrong. let me explain,what is truth ORWELL the right to say 2+2=4.MATTER+ MIND= MATHS, the bnp is not racist it is not the nazis, it is something which it a true british creation, there is nothing like it on the planet, How can i atempt to explain the differance between the ATHENIAN liberal mult culture, chattering class,jewish christern, moralism, and the blunt SPARTA MATHS BASED RIGID. BALANCE OF ALL THINGS,PLATONIC= TRUTH IS NOT WHAT IS SEEN ,BUT ALSO WHAT IS NOT SEEN.
THEIR ARE 3 FORMS OF TRUTH/ 1 TRUTH IS WHAT YOU SEE, 2/ TRUTH IS WHAT YOU THINK 3/ THE HIGHEST TRUTH IS ALPHA TRUTH = THE NUMBERS ADD UP?
THIS IS THE REASON WHY THE BNP WILL CRAP ON THE OTHER PARTYS? THANK YOU
Posted by: james carlisle | 28 Jan 2010 02:32:34