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Voltaire Be Damned

October 28, 2009

The decision by the BBC to allow the loathsome, racist, jowl-monkey that is Nick Griffin on the flagship debate show Question Time has already sent two ewz contributors racing to their keyboards (see here and here), with two articles drawing complete opposite conclusions.

In the blue corner is thfilthyviewer with the pro-freedom of speech, anti- its inconsistent application, views of an ardent subversive, while in the red corner sysh hopes this incident, and other recent examples of public bigotry, could mean we see the “welcome death” of freedom of speech if it means giving platforms to people with views that only the most hardened relativist would refuse to describe as morally wrong.

I suppose that after two contributors had weighed in there might be an argument that we’ve probably said enough here on ewz about this. But something is niggling away at me and I can’t let it lie. You see I can’t help thinking we haven’t quite framed this right. Framing this even as a question of free speech at all is to begin the very argument by conceding a victory for Nick Griffin and the BNP who want to paint themselves as the brave lone voices of sanity expressing opinions silenced by the liberal establishment. As Diane Abbot put it brilliantly, this isn’t about whether Nick Griffin is allowed to “make speeches write pamphlets (he did one a few years ago about how the media is run by a Jewish cabal), author books, go on television, be interviewed on the radio and have a website.”, but rather its a story about whether he should have appeared on any particular television programme. “That”, as she said “is a matter of judgement. And in choosing to put him on Question Time the BBC exercised the wrong judgement.” Exactly.

And anyone harbouring any misconceptions that the BBC should come away with this with any sort of credit should take a look over at this post by David Steven at Global Dashboards:

It could have announced that Nick Griffin was appearing on Question Time a couple of days ago, and then hoped the whole thing would pass off as quietly as possible.

But that would have been boring. Positively Reithian. How much better to turn the appearance of the BNP leader into… an event! Here’s how it was done:

Trail the decision to invite Britain’s favourite fascist onto Question Time at the end of the silly season, ensuring a six-week, slow burn for the story.

Begin to run cross-platform coverage under suitably-provocative banners like “Who’s Afraid of the BNP?”

Use party conference season to gin up interest in who else will be on the show, making sure the big announcements (a cabinet minister!) get plenty of coverage.

Wait eagerly for the inevitable attacks on your decision to give the BNP airtime.

Get your top brass to respond to them with much earnest head-shaking (“this is hurting us, more than it’s hurting you… but we’re doing it for the children democracy”).

As the big day approaches, up the pace of your coverage – a special on Newsnight (make that two!), prominent slots on all of your news and current affairs programmes, regular briefing for the print media.

And as he added:

why no BNP theme for EastEnders? And surely Radio 3 should have had a Wagner special

You can imagine the conversation at Television Centre went something like this:

A: Ok guys, here ‘s the problem: in a time of global recession and unprecedented media competition, people are looking at our publically funded budget and asking some difficult questions…we need to do something to remind them of the unique potential of the BBC! So…ideas?

B: Err…something with celebrities? Err…celebrity Auswitz?

A: What, no! No celebrities…and definitely no Auswitz…no we need something that reminds people that we are uniquely…serious

B: Well, speaking of Auswitz…what about Nick Griffin on Question time?

A: Hmm…I don’t know, I mean he is you know…a racist, homophobe, don’t you think that might be seen as giving legitimacy to his views?

B: Nah, but anyway we could change the format to fill the audience with hostile questions on limited topics like race, religion and so on, then give politicians and high profile figures the chance to finally put him in his place once and for all – we could even frame it as fulfilling our democratic duty as a public service broadcaster! We’ll be heros!

A: Its genius! Publically-funded taxis home tonight for everyone!

The fact is that appearing on Question Time is not just a question of credibility; it is itself a form of credibility. Yes the BNP gained two seats in elections to the European Parliament (even less highly regarded in the UK than the Eurovision Song Contest), but did so by gaining fewer votes than the election previously in a region of the country where the people, so fed up of the Labour party as a vehicle for expressing working class concerns, and so loathe to vote for any alternative, just didn’t vote at all. I’m sorry but that is not the signal of political credibility. But being seen suited on television next to a cabinet minister and other leading politicians (not to mention host David Dimbleby), on a programme which most members of the British public know, if only by reputation – that is joining the establishment, that to someone somewhere is worth some credibility.

This is why I think that thefilthyviewer, and indeed many others, get it wrong when they welcome bringing these debates out into the open where these views can be challenged openly rather than hidden away. This in my view is to misunderstand the nature of the challenge. The very sign of progress is when we render these kind of views unutterable, far before they ever will become unthinkable (indeed you need only peer into the more obscure corners of the internet to know that pretty much anything remains thinkable to someone). What was really at stake here was not the legal right to free speech, but its socially acceptable limits. The BBC have no place deciding the former, but they have a role to play in defining the latter, and that was where they got this so badly wrong.

Words matter because they define the contours of what we can do. Obama, for all his disappointments, teaches us that. So I can’t help but think that in liberal democratic societies Voltaire’s celebrated phrase has become nothing more than misdirection. Instead I would reformulate them: I disagree with what you say, and I will not rest until you consider you have no such right to say it.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Paul permalink
    October 28, 2009 2:30 am

    Racism begins with our families, parents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, grandparents, people we admire, respect and love.

    However, as we grow and mature we come to the realization that what we were told by our family when we were children were slanted lies base on their prejudices. We realize that most people are like ourselves and not so different and want the same things, like a home, steady work, a Medicare plan and schools for our children (if you travel you will see this). We realize that most people are of good hearts and goodwill.

    This reminds me of a parable from the good book where a Levite and Priest come upon a man who fell among thieves and they both individually passed by and didn’t stop to help him.

    Finally a man of another race came by, he got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy and got down with the injured man, administered first aid, and helped the man in need.

    Jesus ended up saying, this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capacity to project the “I” into the “thou,” and to be concerned about his fellow man.

    You see, the Levite and the Priest were afraid, they asked themselves, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”

    But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

    That’s the question before us. The question is not, “If I stop to help our fellow man (immigrant) in need, what will happen to me?” The question is, “If I do not stop to help our fellow man, what will happen to him or her?” That’s the question.

    This current climate of blaming others for our woes is not new. We have had this before and we have conquered it.

    Remember “Evil flourishes when good men (and women) do nothing”. Raise your voices with those of us who believe we are equal and we can win this battle again.

  2. Claude Van Inkins permalink*
    October 28, 2009 1:55 pm

    I think you make a good argument dividing lawful rights and social responsibility: The BBC can legally allow the BNP on but this is besdies the point as it should, as a socially responsible actor, not allow the BNP.

    But lets flip things up a little under the veil of ignorance. Say we had only recently given homosexual people equal rights, and they formed a party and got some votes in Brighton, and wanted to come on TV, and present their views on a poltiical show, as was their legal right. However 95% of the British population, especially its elite media-type chattering social classes, thought homosexuality was disgusting, wrong and evil. The BBC, after considering these widely held beliefs, decided that it would be socially irresponsible to allow this homosexual party on QT, even though it had legal rights just like any other party.

    This is why legal rights exist and why they should trump ‘social responsibility’, becuase otherwise you are left with the tyranny of the majority. Just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean that in some places – such as QT – it should be banned.

    PS. And Eastenders and Radio 3 are entertainment programmes that are designed primairly to entertain, not as forums for political debate, which is exactly what QT is. If the BBC does want to be constructing a more progressive society than it can put black and gay and jewish people into these shows, as it does. But a big difference exists.

    • snugglebus permalink*
      October 28, 2009 6:10 pm

      I mean I take your point to some extent about the fliping it around and playing the ‘veil of ingnorance card’. Its a valid one. But there is so much more to things than that I think.

      I mean, is it your view that we just argue things out in a condition of freedom of speech, and then progress happens as a consequence of accumulation of enough people convinced by rational thought (i.e. the sort of standard narrative of ‘changing public opinion;) that certain opinions fade away because they are no longer held?

      to me this doesn’t appear to be the case. in actual fact I would suggest that the change comes first at the level of what can and cannot be said, or even if by ‘first’ I am stretching things too far, I would certainly be willing to say that this is at least as important as any other factor.

      to use your example, was the specific change of breaking down what we now call homophobia not, at least in part, a product of a concerted campaign over what is and is not sayable?

      this works in both directions: first positively, i.e. what you can say e.g. being able to actually publically say that homosexuality is as legitimate a ‘lifestyle’ – horrible word but anyway – as hetrosexuality…for specific examples think things like the infamous Section 28 controversy in the UK, or simply more asbtractly the ton of bricks that might have come down on radio shows, editorials, in parliament even, on someone who said something like that even as little as say 15-20 years ago.

      second negatively i.e. what you can’t say, e.g. the gradual progress towards rendering unsayable certain things such as homosexuality is deviant and so on. its not a legal issue at all. and its not really the result of ‘rational’ conversation as far as I can tell (did we suddenly become more rational in the last 2-3 decades??).

  3. snugglebus permalink*
    October 28, 2009 6:15 pm

    PS – the Eastenders and Radio 3 comments I think were meant as references to the fact the BBC did all but trail the upcoming BNP question time appearence by have Wagner day or whatever else on these things, not say that it would be equivalent to featuring BNP on QT.

    the more serious point is to further question the BBC’s narrative of the doing their duty as public broadcaster in facilitatin debate among democratically sanction viewpoints…if this were the whole case, then why was this one issue handled differently than any other?

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