Sholto Byrnes: A shame that outrage and not debate confronted Nick Griffin

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I am the son of an immigrant. My close family includes Jews and Muslims as well as Christians. I oppose everything the BNP stands for. And I too feel disgusted about Nick Griffin’s appearance on BBC1’s Question Time – but not because he was invited to appear on a respected, high-profile national discussion programme.



No. I am angry and ashamed that his fellow panellists, three senior members of our main Westminster parties and one leading cultural figure, acted in a way that betrayed the very principles that were invoked as reasons why the BNP leader should not have been on the programme.

Griffin’s views, it is argued, are beyond the pale. It was wrong to give him the oxygen of publicity and, through his presence on Question Time, tacitly to accept his party as a legitimate element in mainstream political discourse. But he was there, and, given that he was, it should have been ridiculously easy to demonstrate how repulsive his party is.

It should have been enough to confront him with past comments that have been recorded in a manner that makes them undeniable. It should have been enough to examine his party’s stated policies and its ludicrous elevation of an indigenous ethnicity in an island that has assimilated waves of immigrants for centuries.

It should have been laughably straightforward for the panellists to debate with and destroy Griffin’s arguments. Instead, inflated by their outrage, the other speakers repeatedly interrupted, spoke over and cut short the BNP leader. They could have given him all the rope he needed to hang himself. By treating him as a pariah not even granted the liberty of finishing many of his sentences, never mind a particular proposition he was beginning to elaborate, they showed precisely the disregard for others and their views that they condemn in Griffin’s party.

Nearly one million people voted for the BNP in the Euro-elections. Whatever one thinks of their party’s platform, they have a right to be heard. Some parties cannot be more “legal” than others. That is a consequence of living in a democracy and it is part of cherishing the right to free speech. You persuade such people that they are wrong by discussion of what they say; and that means exactly what they say, not what it can be distorted into sounding like (the BNP’s appropriation of Churchill was thus a weak example for its opponents to concentrate on, because so many of his statements and beliefs would be seen as racist and imperialist by the standards of our time).

In debate you extend every courtesy to the BNP that they might possibly curtail if they were in power. You merely rest on the force of your argument. And you do all this because you are confident in the superiority of your position, and that morality and good sense are all that is needed to show how odious Griffin’s band of fascists actually are, however slick and more media-savvy they may seem compared to their predecessors.

On Question Time, however, we saw four men and women who occupy offices that convey the appearance or prospect of weighty national power and influence. And how did they show themselves to be better than this man, this outcast unfit to take part in our civilised political discourse? By using the bullying tactics so often deplored in those of Griffin’s ilk. By shouting him down. By indulging their indignation – never mind that in the process we lost the opportunity of hearing him condemn himself in his own words.

Shame on them, I say. If BNP support increases as a result of Griffin’s appearance, they should reflect on the fact that it was they, not the BBC, that disgraced themselves on Thursday night.

Sholto Byrnes is Assistant Editor of the New Statesman

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