'Independent' accused over BNP: Publication of letter condemned, but columnist warns against censorship. Mary Braid reports

THE INDEPENDENT was yesterday accused of 'irresponsible and complacent' reporting of the ultra-right British National Party in the run-up to last week's council elections.

In a debate on media treatment of the neo-Nazi organisation, the investigative journalist Paul Foot singled out a letter from the BNP, published in the Independent, which claimed the party was anti-violence and pro-free speech. 'You know that is not the case,' Mr Foot said. 'To publish the letter was quite irresponsible.'

Yesterday's debate between Mr Foot and Andrew Marr, the Independent's political columnist, followed a month-long row which began when Mr Foot and five other journalists from Media Workers Against the Nazis wrote to the newspaper protesting about the BNP letter. They argued that the normal rules of free speech and expression could not apply to those who aimed to deny basic rights and freedoms to sections of the population.

Yesterday Mr Foot also claimed several Independent reports had been too uncritical of the BNP, an organisation which advocates the forcible removal of more than 6 million ethnic minority citizens from Britain. He said the BNP had received a disproportionate amount of publicity and argued journalists should 'self-censor' on the basis of social consequences and ensure 'no platform for fascist propaganda'.

Different criteria were needed because fascist propaganda could not be separated from violent attacks on Asian and black people.

The history of the 20th century showed the danger of providing the 'privilege' of free speech to a group which would 'wipe out free speech forever' should it gain power.

Andrew Marr, political columnist of the Independent, said Mr Foot's arguments were characterised by 'bad history, bad politics, bad tactics and bad logic'.

He said: 'Supporting a 'no platform for the BNP' position I would find it hard to explain how Sinn Fein and extremist parties in Northern Ireland need to be reported, investigated and discussed.'

Mr Marr feared widespread revulsion for Nazis might be the first step towards 'routine censorship'. Far from being a privilege, free speech was the very basis of a democratic society. Incitement to violence and racial abuse were not allowed 'but by and large we assume that bad arguments and false logic can be dealt with. It's a matter of whether you have faith in your fellow citizens and in your own arguments'.

He warned that the way to tackle the BNP was not to 'stick a plaster over a repulsive growth'. It had to be looked at intently and analysed. Without thorough reporting, people might think there were 1,500 paid-up neo- Nazis on the Isle of Dogs. The reality was that many people there were suffering bad housing and high unemployment. Ignored by politicians they had reacted aggressively and voted BNP.