‘Would the BBC give a platform to Hitler?’

Patrick Hayes joined the rabble of censors protesting outside BBC Television Centre in the run-up to Question Time.

Patrick Hayes

Topics Free Speech

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‘Of course I believe in free speech’, said Samantha, a student from Camden in London, protesting outside the BBC studios in White City where Nick Griffin was due shortly to join the Question Time panel. ‘But in the same way we have no platform for fascists at university, there should definitely be no platform for fascists at the BBC.’

In fact, the everyday TV-viewing public is even more ‘vulnerable’ than students when it comes to dangerous ideas, Samantha claimed. ‘They sadly don’t have the level of education and, especially during the recession, might vote for the BNP out of fear or desperation.’

Such patronising, illiberal views were widespread at yesterday’s anti-BNP demo. Protesters from various left-wing and anti-fascist groups had been outside the BBC studios all day, chanting ‘Nasty Nazi Nick, off our streets!’, ‘Six million dead, never again’ and ‘We are all black, white, Asian and Jews’. Banners declared ‘No Platform for fascists’, ‘The BNP is a Nazi party’ and ‘It’s not that kind of White City, Nick!’. One woman held a banner that said ‘Gay Muslims against Nazi Scum’. On the outer walls of the BBC studio a protester had plastered posters of gay men kissing, with the slogan: ‘This is Britain.’

Poster outside BBC Television Centre

Many of the protesters were students, mobilised by Unite Against Fascism. Some wore fancy dress. One man wore a Hitler mask and BNP armbands. A young woman masked her face with a collage of newspaper headlines about the BNP to highlight the dangerous role the media played in giving them publicity (although she argued that the media presence at this protest was a ‘necessary evil’ to raise awareness). The number of protesters peaked at 600 at around 5pm when there were various skirmishes with the police.

Several protesters cited Ken Livingstone’s claim on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that wherever Griffin and his colleagues speak or stand in elections there is an inevitable spike in racist attacks, reflecting their deeply censorious view of the public as Pavlovian dogs who hear something and act on it. But the protesters’ primary concern was that the ‘newly suited and booted’ Nick Griffin would be lent ‘a veneer of respectability by being on Question Time’.

Many seemed to believe Griffin is extraordinarily clever and cunning. A veteran anti-war protester told me: ‘He’s like any other politician, but extremely intelligent. He listens to people and promises exactly what people want in order to get into power. People are completely desperate so they’ll take the apple. They will vote for a dog if they think a dog will deliver.’ Another charming view of the electorate; these protesters really wanted censorship because they don’t trust ‘ordinary people’ to weigh up ideas on their merits.

However, very few of the protesters thought that they themselves, or anyone they know, would be persuaded by Griffin’s seductive arguments (although one woman said she knew ‘one or two guys who might be’). No, it is always ‘the other’ – the working classes, the underclasses, the uneducated – who are seen as needing protection from Griffin’s words by caring, censorious protesters. The main argument here was that we should ‘learn the lessons of history’, as if the masses are predetermined to act in a certain way and to repeat tragic mistakes of the past unless their awareness is raised. ‘It’s like Germany during the time of depression when Hitler came in’, said one young man. A middle-aged woman echoed this sentiment: ‘The BBC wouldn’t have let Hitler debate on Question Time two years before he took power. They seem to be in denial about the size of the problem here. Why can’t they learn from history?’

A protester dressed as Hitler

The protesters’ combination of hysterical scaremongering about the return of fascism and disdain for the intellectual capabilities of the electorate (not their mates, of course, but everyone else) means they can see only one solution to the BNP: censorship. Afraid of the public, panicked about the future and clearly unconvinced about their own ability to win an argument, left-wing campaigners instead hope that the authorities, in particular the BBC, will exercise moral judgement on the nation’s behalf and deny Griffin a platform.

‘I’m hoping the audience won’t allow this debate to happen and shout him down’, said a student protester, before rejoining a crowd of protesters who were chanting in their scuffles with the police: ‘This is what democracy looks like!’

But the intention of the demonstration was to curb one of the most fundamental democratic freedoms: free speech. They were lobbying the BBC to prevent the leader of a political party from having his views broadcast. Yet, as Griffin’s appearance on Question Time demonstrated, he is hardly the charismatic, clever and manipulative orator that the protesters hyped him up to be; instead he’s a rather sad, inarticulate man with outdated views. The audience are more than capable of spotting that. It is not Griffin appearing on Question Time that poses a threat to democracy, but rather the censorious campaign to prevent him from appearing on Question Time on the basis that the fickle public will turn wild and violent if they are exposed to his views.

Patrick Hayes is volunteer co-ordinator for education charity WORLDwrite and one of the organisers of the Battle of Ideas festival, which features an ‘Activism Zone’ on Saturday 31st October.

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Topics Free Speech


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