Saturday, 24 October 2009

Griffin: menace or martyr?

Earlier this week BBC director general Mark Thompson used a Guardian article to justify the corporation's decision to afford the BNP's Nick Griffin an appearance on Question Time. In essence Mr Thompson's rationale was that the BBC had a duty to act impartially, and that with six per cent of the votes and two MEPs elected in this year's European elections the party had earned the right to be heard - and challenged - in debate in a democratic society. Censorship is a matter for government, not the BBC, he said.

But it transpired that rather than fulfilling the corporation's remit to demonstrate political impartiality, the usual Question Time format seemed to have been contrived to show Nick Griffin at his very worst. Of course, to a large extent the stance and reaction of the vast majority of the participants were eminently predictable along the normal lines of the programme, but both the audience and panel seemed more "young, metropolitan and multi-cultural" than usual, chairman David Dimbelby appeared to abandon any pretence of being an impartial arbiter, and all the questions seemed to have a race/immigration angle. And the one that didn't - on Stephen Gately - also provided the opportunity for Griffin to display his very un-BBC homophobia.

Of course, to an extent the BBC and the programme triumphed in their aim to expose the more unpleasant side of the BNP leader over his attempts to sanitise the public image of his party, but on the other hand it's clear that a significant body of moderate opinion considers Mr Griffin to have been deliberately set up for a fall, and rather than exposing his arguments his appearance had the perverse effect of making him look like the victim, to an extent at least, with many politicians claiming that the BBC have allowed him to play the martyr. The scene was perhaps set by the baying mob which attempted to storm the BBC studios before the start of the programme; one participant complained on TV that he'd been treated like an animal by police and security - thus as per usual in these euphemistically termed 'direct action' scenarios - but surely anyone acting like an animal shouldn't be surprised if they're treated as such? And, indeed, the farmyard imagery was extended to the programme itself by one online commentator, who likened the studio scenario to Animal Farm, in which the pigs "had become so much like the humans, both in behaviour and appearance, that those looking through a window from the outside cannot tell man and pig apart".

By the same token, a number of letters in today's Herald make a largely similar point, which in turn perhaps vindicates Griffin's formal complaint to the BBC and his accusations regarding a "Question Time lynch mob". For example:
I think the programme failed, because Mr Griffin was constantly interrupted and never allowed to complete any answer, unconvincing as these may have been. It may even have been counter-productive, with many viewers who strongly oppose the BNP ending up feeling some sympathy for him because of the offensive treatment he received.

The other four members of the panel – a minister of Jewish immigrant stock, an Asian Conservative, a black American actress and a Liberal Democrat – were not exactly a balanced selection, and the supposedly impartial chairman David Dimbleby behaved more like the chief prosecutor cross-examining the accused. He allowed the other members to interrupt Mr Griffin constantly and also challenged him aggressively himself, producing reams of old quotes, most of which Mr Griffin claimed not to have said.

The audience was drawn mostly from West London, where there is no BNP support. Also, it was 99% hostile. Would it have been very different if this Question Time had been broadcast from Burnley or Bradford, rather than London’s Television Centre?

Thus perhaps the real issues were lost in the stage-managed 'good versus evil' scenario, and to an extent this misfired and Griffin/the BNP were paradoxically regarded as not given a fair hearing. Indeed, this morning's media is reporting that a new poll says one in five electors would "seriously consider" voting BNP.

Therefore it's arguable that Mr Griffin's treatment, together with some resonance for his views with the pubic regarding the substantive issue of immigration, have combined to bolster the BNP, while the crude, soundbite-level debate of Question Time misfired both on the BBC and moderate opinion generally. In fact it's interesting to observe how even on the right of the political spectrum contrasting opinions can be found. Of course, the BNP position on immigration does not require repeating, but London mayor Boris Johnson said yesterday:
London is a welcoming, tolerant, cosmopolitan capital which thrives on its diversity. The secret of its long-term success is its ability to attract the best from wherever they are and allow them to be themselves - unleashing their imagination, creativity and enterprise.
Thus perhaps more libertarian than liberal, but another Conservative maybe today reflects the real anxieties of working people. In claiming mainstream politicians have ignored the grievances that allow the likes of Griffin to thrive, Telegraph commentator Charles Moore says:
It threatens their jobs, they believe. Ten years ago, a self-employed painter and decorator in, say, Barking might have earned £120 a day, enough to get a reasonable mortgage and sustain a modestly secure family life. Today, after the Government underestimated the number of Eastern Europeans likely to come here by almost 20 times, he would get £70 or £80. If his ailing father pays regular visits to hospital, he may be denied a bed because so many foreign women are giving birth. If his child has special needs, he may find the local school neglects them because it is desperately trying to teach English to children who do not speak it at home. If his brother is a soldier, he may return from risking his life to be insulted on the streets of his country by people who hate it.

The strongest common characteristic of such BNP supporters is pessimism. They feel they are sinking to the bottom of the pile, and that people from other countries are being privileged over them by the public services. If they complain, they are told they are racist. It is not surprising that they say things like "My country is being taken away from me". They are not completely mistaken.

Thus the rose-tinted view of Boris Johnson and the liberal left audience on Question Time may look plausible when juxtaposed with the ugly stance of Nick Griffin, but away from the idealism and the television stage management real concerns need to be addressed if they are not to be exploited by extremists and bigots.


Wardog said...

An excellent & well crafted post Stuart, my sentiments entirely.

Stuart Winton said...

Er, thanks Wardog, really just a bit of fence-sitting and quoting other people!!

Observer said...

Excellent post Stuart.

Instead of quoting letters in the Herald you should be writing more of them.

Stuart Winton said...

Thanks, Observer.

Indeed, it would be great if we could all get our letters published on demand, but as many people will be aware that's by no means a foregone conclusion, and it can become a bit soul-destroying penning seemingly endless unpublished letters.

And I'm not Iain A D Mann, you know ;0)

At least with blogging there's no publishing barrier to contend with, it's the size of the readership that's the problem!!