I watched last nights BBC Question Time with great interest, and even greater trepidation. You probably already know why, too. For the very first time such a platform was afforded to the much disliked, yet raising in popularity, leader of the British National Party, Nick Griffin (no, I am not linking to them). Much ink and bile was spilt in the past few days discussing if this was a wise thing to do - to put it mildly.
Personally, I could not help but side with the ones pointing out that BNP was (still) legal, that they got 6% of the national vote for European Parliament, as well as two (2) seats there. Yes, party's constitution has been challenged in court - successfully, I might add - but it (BNP) has agreed to review it and change it, hopefully for the better. Whatever I, and anybody else, think about them and their (sick) views, they cannot be rightly denied air time. Not unless we decide that democracy as we know it is in fact not such a good thing.
And so, Nick Griffin took his (rightful?) place on the panel which included quite a few very clever, and equally upright, people. To name but a few: Jack Straw, current Justice Secretary, Baroness Warsi, a shadow minister (Conservative), Chris Huhne, and MP (Liberal Democrat). The panel was moderated by David Dimbleby, brilliant as ever. I won't attempt to tell you what happened. Go over to the BBC and see for yourselves. But while you're there also have a look at viewers' comments! This is what I want to talk about here.
But before I go there, let me just say one impression I got from watching last night's show. While I still think it was right, and possibly even important to give national air time to BNP in general, and Nick Griffin in particular, I think a mistake was made in the format. Question Time is arguably not the best format if you want to go deeper into a person's, and party's, views and beliefs. It too easily lends itself to chaos, unfinished sentences, and unanswered questions. It is nice to have a quick overview of what different people, and their organisations, as well as general public, think about a few issues. It almost assumes that everybody knows a few basics about everybody else, and also that all involved share the same basic values, more or less. But BNP is so unknown right now, and also so much different from any other mainstream organisation that the format just does not work. For the very first, introductory, TV session with them I firmly believe that a one-to-one interview would have been much better. Yes, it would give so much more uninterrupted time to Nick Griffin (does BNP even have any others who can appear in public and not embarrass themselves?). But on the other hand, British TV in general, and BBC in particular has quite enough truly brilliant political journalists well versed in the difficult and arcane art of interviewing controversial figures. You could make it relatively benign (in appearance, at least) by choosing Andrew Marr. Or you could go all the way by unleashing my all time favourite interviewer, Jeremy Paxman. Oh, how I would like to see Nick Griffin squirm after being asked for the 13th time (15th by different counting) if he really, truly, now believed Holocaust did happen, yes or no. And so on.
But, as I said, I am here to tell you, warn you, of another, possibly unintended consequence of last night's Question Time. Before I continue do go to the BBC web site and read a few pages of viewers' comments. Go on, do it. I mean it. And while you're at it try to keep track of the ratio of pro et contra. For this exercise, please count as pro (BNP) even those who say (now) they would not vote for them, but oh there are a few things they agree with. Once you've done that, and hopefully read on here you'll hopefully understand, and agree with me, that this way of counting makes sense.
What I want to say is that I am not so much worried about how BNP itself will fare after last night's show. I don't even think they themselves will reap too much benefit. What I think will happen, and that's potentially even worse, is that some of the views BNP promotes (and frankly, none they hold are acceptable in a modern society) have suddenly been given some kind of respectability. Yes, there's still this great furore when they are expressed openly, but no wit's suddenly OK to express them in the first place. The woodwork from the title suddenly comes to life, and all the ones who, until now, thought that talking about these things (no, I'm not listing them here) is shameful, and something one does not mention in polite society, they suddenly hear them discussed on BBC, and guess what? Now they know it's in fact OK to come out and talk about it. After all, look at all those people seriously trying to engage Nick Griffin, and his confused, and wrong on so many levels (including pure logic) statements. It is again respectable to say that United Kingdom may be better of if all non-whites (and some whites, too) were pushed overboard. No, they will not vote for BNP (not yet, anyway), but now they can go to their MP and demand that he does something about these things. So, suddenly, race, ethnicity, religion, again come to the forefront of the political debate. Everybody has to talk about it, and that just feeds the same fire. Before you know it you get a brand new political party, much better at PR than BNP can ever be, who cleverly disguises BNP-like agenda into something people can openly vote for (those who vote for BNPs everywhere tend to lie not only to pre-election, and exit polls, but also often to themselves; just go to Serbia and ask who voted for Slobodan Milošević in the first elections in 1990).
This is then what worries me about last night, and the following days. I still hope United Kingdom is bigger, and better than to sink to BNP-esque depths, but I thought so of ex-Yugoslavia, too (the one that burst to flames in 1991, not the ones that, sort of, emerged later). We'll just have to wait and see, and also work on countering this trend. Work very hard. Every single one of us, but mainstream political parties so much more. We're watching you...
But in the final analysis, am I still of the opinion that we could not have denied BNP a platform on national television? Yes, I am still firmly of that opinion. Not least because now everything is in the open, and everything now becomes available to fight for, or against as the case may be. Bashing somebody's political views without your audience having heard your opponent express them, in his their own words, usually sounds quite lame, and very often creates some kind of sympathy for the underdog. Let the underdog show its ugly, snarling face, and suddenly, hopefully you've won half the battle. At worst, you do not appear unfair just telling somebody to shut up for the benefit of the public, when that same public has no real clue what you, or rather they, are talking about. So all in all, I think what happened was good. It could (and should) have been done better, but it's a start. Shaky, but a start.
Now wish us all very, very good luck!
Above, I have used the example of Slobodan Milošević. It was unfair to an extent, even if I revile the man and all he stood for. A much better comparison to BNP, and Nick Griffin from recent Serbian history is to Serbian Radical Party (SRS, Srpska Radikalna Stranka), and it's leader Vojislav Šešelj, currently tried for war crimes in The Hague. Look at SRS and Šešelj, and see where letting BNP run riot can lead. Oh, and no, I am not linking to these criminals, either...