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Freedom of Speech, the BBC and the BNP

This is a guest post by Michael Ezra

The Welsh Secretary, Peter Hain, was morally opposed to the BBC providing a platform to Nick Griffin on Question Time. The BBC’s decision, in his opinion, was “unreasonable, irrational and unlawful.” He stated:

The BBC should be ashamed of single-handedly doing a racist, fascist party the biggest favour in its grubby history.

Hain’s warning of a possible legal challenge was based on the idea that the BNP itself is an unlawful party due to its membership criteria. Let us suppose that the BNP changes its membership rules to comply with the law, would that make the party substantially less odious or placate Hain and other objectors to the BBC for providing airtime to Griffin? The answer to that is almost certainly not.

The BBC contended that, as a public service broadcaster, it was obliged to invite the BNP onto Question Time. A spokesman said:

Our assessment was that, following the European elections, [the BNP] had established a level of electoral support which meant it was appropriate to invite a representative on to an edition of Question Time.

The BBC’s duty of impartiality makes sense. It does not extend to having to provide airtime to every fringe party that springs up, but it does require it to provide some airtime to a party that has demonstrated a certain level of electoral support.

Unlike newspapers, which are entitled to adopt overtly partisan positions, the BBC must remain impartial. Hain’s call for the BBC to, in effect, express a political preference by excluding the BNP is a slippery slope: if the BBC could chose not to give an elected political party such as the BNP airtime, then there should be nothing to stop it showing bias and not providing airtime to any of the more mainstream parties such as Labour, the Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives.

Of course, some contend that racism and fascism are uniquely odious and worthy of exclusion from the public square. This is effectively the policy of the National Union of Students. The problem is, who decides who is a racist or a fascist? In 1985, Sunderland Polytechnic Student Union banned the college’s Jewish Society on the grounds it was Zionist and therefore racist.

Irrespective of how odious we may find its policies, the BNP must be free to express them. The philosopher and liberal thinker, John Stuart Mill, made a case for such freedom in his 1859 essay On Liberty:

there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it might be considered.

In so far as a democracy allowing airtime for a racist political party, in 1984 the Israel Broadcasting Authority attempted to restrict airtime to Meir Kahane. A court case on this decision ensued and the Israel’s Supreme Court ruled:

Freedom of speech is not just the freedom to express or hear views acceptable to all. Freedom of speech is also the freedom to express dangerous, obnoxious and perverse views, that the public abhors … It includes also the freedom to racist expression and the concept that the racist public finds solace in the freedom of speech is not to be accepted as it is a threat to democracy. The belief that freedom of speech covers also extreme and racist views applies especially to the freedom of a political party participating in the parliamentary process.

This ruling by Israel’s Supreme Court should be approved by all democrats. Many may be offended by the views of Mr. Griffin and the policies of the BNP. Whilst, as citizens of the United Kingdom, we have many rights, the right not to be offended is not one of them. Rather than utilising no platform polices and censorship for racists, we should expose them and hold them up to ridicule. Richard Reynolds, as an undergraduate student at the University of East Anglia, expressed it well two years ago:

In order to discredit illiberal, extremist or racist ideologies, it is necessary to openly confront these ideas and not merely pretend they do not exist.

The BBC was right to give airtime to Griffin and the audience and panellists were right to attack his views. Readers of this blog will be familiar with the words of George Orwell:

If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.