The debacle over Jan Moir’s recent article, in which Stephen Gately’s death was used as a winch with which to hold up the evils of civil partnerships, has meant freedom of the press is now under increasing scrutiny.
There was similar outrage on display yesterday when a group of protestors charged into the BBC car park over the Corporation’s decision to allow BNP leader Nick Griffin to appear on Question Time. Those wishing to see Griffin denied a platform, like those calling for Moir to be muzzled, no doubt act with good intentions. However the cost of denying either their right to speak is too high, even in the face of an almost inhumanly callous article or the political views of an odious right-wing bigot.
The demonstrators, there to publicise their antipathy towards Griffin’s politics, trampled over barriers as they forced their way into Auntie HQ. Unfortunately, they were also trampling, whether knowingly or not, over one of the most sacred traditions in modern political thought.
It’s exactly 150 years since John Stuart Mill published On Liberty, the treatise which, alongside the writings of the French Revolution, lay the foundations for freedom of speech. It was a radical idea at the time, now commonplace, almost banal.
Yet the tenet appears to be increasingly under attack, whether it’s Muslims ordering the death of a Danish cartoonist, Christians demanding the closure of Jerry Springer the Opera, calls for police action over homophobic article, or Liberals storming Television Centre over a guest on a panel show.
In hindsight, the protestors should be thankful they failed. Despite the build-up, more akin to a boxing match than the usual Thursday night fare, the broadcast proved nothing more than a dog and pony show as Griffin, dressed in moderate guise, put up little fight, even in the face of fellow panelists, seemingly hand-picked for a lack of intellectual cut and thrust.
So utterly hopeless was the BNP front man that Jack Straw was able to reinvent himself as the enforcer, a Blackburn-born bruiser who wasn’t afraid to wag his bony finger at Griffin, even if it meant cutting across Dimbleby’s eye line. The BNP leader, his own eyes lurching independently from side to side, responded to Straw’s onslaught by digging himself a succession of large holes, much to the delight of the unusually boisterous crowd.
The most interesting note of the early exchanges was a question posed by a young man in a Newcastle United top. And black and white soon proved the focal point for the discussion, as Griffin, already stumbling over his words, was taken to task over a series of quotations around holocaust denial and the true agenda of the right wing party. As a contest it was over, but not before Straw put in a few more hay makers.
“Your politics are based on colour,” stormed the Justice Secretary.
“Colour is irrelevant,” bleated back the evening’s bête noir.
Griffin fared little better on the question on British Muslims; with Baroness Warsi pointing out that the BNP leader had once shared a stage with Abu Hamza. They have more than a stage in common. Meanwhile, the real fun was online, with social network sites offering real-time comment as the drama unfurled. Twitter, a network with a “liberals only” recruitment policy, scoffed at the pantomime villain, tweeting and re-tweeting his every agonising line. “We’re the white aborigines” did some business.
The “non-violent Ku-Klux-Klan” did some more. Equally lively was Facebook, with status updates on the show adding to a wealth of articles and opinion that had formed throughout the day. Interestingly, the Beeb, perhaps dismayed at the one sided nature of the affair, tried to even things up via the red button, with plenty of messages of support for the BNP making it onto the texting message board.
Back at Television Centre, the show was nearing its farcical end as the non-BNP panellists, fresh from fifty minutes of table banging on the joys of multiculturalism, set about a distasteful natter on which of them took the strongest line on immigration. It was a fitting denouement to what had been an amusing if slightly unpleasant evening’s viewing.
Still, that’s the price we all pay for the right to speak our mind. In the ongoing battle against censorship and restriction, the Great British public should feel proud that this type of debate can take place here. Let’s just hope they weren’t all smiles in the green room after the show.