Airtime for Hitler
In 2008, a Newsnight producer called me to ask if I would appear in the studio with the British National Party leader, Nick Griffin, to debate ‘the white working class’. The BNP had been gaining seats on local councils since the mid-2000s, and Griffin was engaged in a campaign to make it seem a respectable electoral choice.
I told the producer he had to be joking. What was he doing even thinking of having a fascist on the programme? He seemed mystified by my response. Wasn’t it a good thing that the BBC were listening to the concerns of ‘the white working class’? And shouldn’t we have these debates so the fascists won’t win? No, I said: fascists belong under stones, not on national television. Griffin didn’t appear on Newsnight that time; perhaps they couldn’t find anyone on the left willing to go on with him.
When Derek Beackon narrowly won a council seat in Tower Hamlets for the BNP in 1993 – the first far-right elected representative since the height of the National Front in the late 1970s – it felt like the end of the world, and the BBC reported it as such. BNP supporters were shown on the BBC news rampaging around the Isle of Dogs on the night of Beackon’s election: this is what fascism looks like, the images implied, and it has to be stopped.
In March 2008, BBC2 broadcast a series of documentaries under the banner White, which asked whether ‘the white working class’ was becoming invisible in media and in political debate. The programme makers hedged their bets, inviting viewers both to revile BNP-voters for their racism and to imagine that they had been driven to it by these frightful snobs at the BBC ignoring them for so long.
The BNP leader got his moment – actually an hour – of legitimising exposure on Question Time in October 2009. James Macintyre, who used to work on the programme, wrote in the New Statesman that his colleagues had wanted Griffin to appear since 2007, but he had argued that the format meant it is difficult for a panellist 'not to have a "good" Question Time'; Macintyre agreed with the Labour MP Jon Cruddas that Griffin should instead have had '45 minutes with John Humphrys or Andrew Neil' (hollow laugh).
Griffin performed badly on Question Time, unable to answer simple questions on his party’s policies. But in that moment, both the far right and the BBC won: the BNP had achieved its goal of respectability by getting onto a mainstream political programme; and the corporation could claim that it had neutralised the fascist threat through exposure to ‘rational debate’.
Ten years on, the BBC continues to give plenty of airtime to the far right (which has been anything but neutralised), in the unfounded belief that the ‘legitimate concerns’ of ‘the left behind’ – the ‘millions’ who ‘do not enthuse about diversity and do not embrace metropolitan values’, according to David Cowling, the BBC’s former head of research – are best addressed by repeatedly broadcasting extreme right-wing views.
Ann Coulter, the far-right American columnist, has appeared several times on Newsnight over the last decade, called on to disparage the Black Lives Matter movement and defend Donald Trump. Nigel Farage has been on Question Time 32 times since 2000, even though Ukip has never had more than two MPs and Farage has never been one of them. Newsnight’s ‘Viewpoint’ strand recently described Tommy Robinson’s supporters not as neo-Nazis but as ‘the people fighting to free’ the EDL leader. Raheem Kassam, the former Breitbart editor and author of a book entitled Enoch was Right, defended Robinson on the Today programme without challenge.
Since turning down the opportunity to debate a fascist on live TV, I’ve been asked by BBC producers to comment on Gillian Duffy – the ‘bigoted woman’ of Gordon Brown’s disastrous 2010 election campaign – and, after the EU referendum, to appear on a TV panel with the Leave campaigner Daniel Hannan. The phone conversations follow a recognisable pattern: because of things I have written and said, I am seen as a ‘go-to’ person to explain ‘the white working class’ to confused and enraged middle-class viewers and listeners. But it's hard to say anything worth saying in the BBC's preferred format of a binary debate: they aren't set up for calm factual analysis.
While parts of the media obsess over the issue of working-class racism – or, rather, the perception that working-class white people are automatically racist or have been ‘driven to racism’ by the actions of a liberal elite – members of the actual, in-power conservative elite are having a racist field day.
One of the problems, as Owen Jones has pointed out, is that most of the UK’s media-political class is drawn from a small, intensely privileged section of society. Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political editor, may truly believe in her own and the corporation’s impartiality, for which she has said she ‘would die in a ditch’. Yet believing in it without interrogating its institutional biases – having signed up to the values and practices of an employer as big as the BBC because your background, education and milieu is already a good fit with those values – isn’t remotely impartial. If the BBC really wanted to listen to and understand working-class people, both white and non-white, it would do better to employ more of them.
In The BBC: Myth of a Public Service, Tom Mills describes the 1977 Annan report on the future of broadcasting as having ‘referred approvingly’ to the then BBC chair’s claim that the corporation’s output worked as ‘social cement of one sort or other’ which ‘reinforced the sense of belonging to our country … and accepting what it stands for’. The cement is crumbling.