A duty to hear muttonheads

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The Independent Online
CENSORSHIP has been a dominant theme this week, applied in the Commons to violent images on video, and elsewhere to the problem of fascists standing in local elections. The popular liberal position seems to be broadly against censorship for images, but in favour of censorship for extreme right- wing politicians. This is precisely the wrong way round.

Am I the only person to be irritated by the application of the notion of 'free speech', which is about the political flow of facts and arguments, to defend the pornography of violence? Free speech is precious because it allows societies to self-correct by applying human reason to any problem. Bad arguments can be scrutinised and rejected. Good ones can slowly shoulder their way from the edge to the centre.

Images are a different matter. A picture of a boot crushing a human face cannot be questioned or refuted. It just is. If the accumulation of violent images, of rapes and mutilations, is believed to degrade or even coarsen our minds, then there is a case for censoring them. And 'free speech' has nothing to do with it.

But political arguments are different. Earlier this week, Paul Foot wrote in the Guardian attacking the idea of allowing the British National Party free speech. He singled out the Independent for special criticism for prominently using a letter by a spokesman for the BNP - a criticism quite a lot of Independent readers, I suspect, would agree with. Foot reiterated his view in a letter published in this newspaper yesterday. His arguments deserve a serious response.

The strongest part of the Foot attack in the Guardian was the assertion that fascists cannot be treated like any other party because there is a direct link between what they say and violent attacks: 'There is a very real sense in which every publication of fascist propaganda leads to another assault on a black person . . . Should a political party whose propaganda is so closely linked to racial violence and whose origins are so closely linked to the destruction of all forms of free speech and expression be treated in the media like an ordinary party?'

Accurate assertion, fair question. But let us spend longer on the problem of words and deeds.

Incitement to racial hatred is already an offence: over words that are directly racist there is, in the legal sense, no problem. So the proposition is that political parties whose programmes imply violence should themselves be repressed, rather than opposed by conventional political means. That proposition gives far too great a role to the subjective judgements of rival politicians.

There is a very real sense, for example, in which every publication of Sinn Fein propaganda, or Orange propaganda, leads to assaults on innocent Northern Irish citizens. However much Sinn Fein says it wants peace, it has supported the IRA and, by giving it such moral support, it encourages IRA killers to keep up the pressure. The bigots of the UDA are just as bad. But we can assume that Mr Foot is against the banning of Sinn Fein.

He may regard the comparison as offensive. Let me be more offensive still. Mr Foot is a propagandist for the Socialist Workers Party, a revolutionary organisation whose political strategy I, for one, regard as pretty despicable. Its supporters are not quite so rigorous about 'assaults' as one might suppose from his journalism.

When I went on anti-Nazi demos in the old days, it was always the SWP groupies, upper-class boys in leather jackets, who tried to provoke violence. No doubt there was some Leninist justification, though testosterone was perhaps more to blame.

But England being England, it is not regarded as quite polite to mention this. The SWP is just one of Paul's harmless hobbies; his uncle wrote the best book on Jonathan Swift; and he is, after all, a fine investigative journalist. This blandly tolerant liberal approach has been proved to be the right one. None of the extreme leftist groups has been a serious problem. It has not been suppression that has kept them down, but the failure of their own ideas.

Yet what if we took their programme as seriously as we are asked to take that of the puny BNP? If representatives of mainstream liberal opinion were called upon to sit down and draw up ground-rules for the suppression of political organisations whose programmes could conceivably imply violence, a whole host of extreme-left and anarchist organisations would be gagged. That, of course, is not Mr Foot's point. Liberal freedoms are for me, but not for my enemy. It barely needs pointing out that Mr Foot's argument against free speech, though dressed in liberal clothes, is not a liberal one. Given that he supports the SWP, that is hardly a big surprise.

Having saluted false friends, though, the next question is whether we should be happy about the coverage of fascism in the media generally. And the answer is emphatically no. There is a strain of decadence in the liberal media that seems to find images of fascism somehow fascinating. Racists are 'good copy'. A fascist or two in television discussions adds a bit of eminently watchable unpredictability.

This has real political effects. The BNP on the Isle of Dogs, a tiny group of boring muttonheads who have exploited local housing grievances for their own ends, finds reporters and camera crews alighting all round it, buzzing with lascivious interest. Local politicians from the mainstream parties helped to whip up the story and wide-eyed media attention will spread the message further.

It sometimes seems as if our jaded appetites, seeking ever stronger sensation, are perked up by the thrill of extremism - vindaloo politics. It is about image, not argument. It is, to change the metaphor, the political equivalent of sado-masochistic chic, and not so very different in its psychology from the lust for ever greater dollops of violence in films. Anything that arouses the attention of the torpid and bored viewer is a media bonus, whether it's gratuitous gore on a film or an extraneous Nazi on Newsnight.

Banning the BNP would leave the door open to the suppression of free speech in other cases, too - indeed, that door is already ajar because of the Sinn Fein example. But that doesn't mean this boring and incoherent collection of venomous inadequates should be given an easy ride. They shouldn't be treated, in Mr Foot's words, 'like an ordinary party' but aggressively and derisively assailed by every decent journalist, and every decent citizen. The more they are seriously cross-questioned, the more they will seem ridiculous.

Britain is riddled with racists, and for every overt one there are a hundred more hidden in the mainstream, participants in an endless private conversation that has never been reported or much discussed in the press. It is too banal, too boring, too predictable. But if you want to expose false logic, you don't keep it hidden, you let it out in the open and strangle it.

Liberalism depends on humans being able to learn from their mistakes and being capable of detecting, in the market of ideas, the healthy and the rotten. If you share even that minimal optimism, you have no grounds on which to support the banning of political argument, but you do have a civic duty to oppose evil arguments and to shun evil images. In that narrow- seeming distinction between adult politics and censorship lies the future of a free society.

(Photograph omitted)