Blowing up the BNP
Media exposés like the BBC’s The Secret Agent have helped to transform a ragbag party into the talking point of British politics.
The far-right British National Party (BNP) has become the focus of media attention once again, following the broadcast of the BBC’s undercover documentary The Secret Agent.
The documentary is the product of a six-month investigation by reporter Jason Gwynne, who infiltrated the BNP and then covertly filmed its members expressing just the sort of moronic, bigoted opinions over a drink that you would expect them to.
‘I heard the BNP leader Nick Griffin give a speech inciting racial hatred and the founder, John Tyndall, inciting racial hatred and I heard some awful anti-Semitic remarks’, says Gwynne. As one critic says: ‘Next, he will be telling us that he has discovered strong evidence of Roman Catholicism in the Vatican.’ (1)
While the results of Gwynne’s investigation may not be surprising, it is now being suggested that some of the BNP figures featured in the documentary should face prosecution, especially since two of them appear to confess to forms of criminal assault and intimidation.
It is legitimate that these possible crimes should now be investigated, having been brought to light by Gwynne’s documentary. More dubious is the suggestion that BNP leader Nick Griffin should also be subject to some form of prosecution, for being filmed calling Islam a ‘vicious wicked faith’ – something which, in a free society, he should surely be entitled to say (2).
Yet under the headline ‘Arrest them’, today’s Sun says that Griffin should be given 10 years inside for preaching a ‘warped message of hate’ (3). The ease with which those commenting upon this affair conflate some BNP members’ claims that they committed physical assault with others’ expression of objectionable views is very worrying.
Griffin has protested that ‘it’s still not illegal to criticise Islam’ (4). In principle he is right – though given the recent introduction into law of concepts such as ‘hate speech’, ‘hate crime’ and ‘incitement to racial hatred’, it is debatable whether he is right in practice. Incitement is an especially woolly category that conflates speech with action, and which can be used to pursue censorious agendas. The response to the BBC documentary suggests that many today make little distinction between words and actions, and believe that the expression of certain views should be as punishable as committing a violent act. The consequences for freedom of speech are as obvious as they are worrying.
One commentator complains that The Secret Agent ‘failed to answer the really interesting question about the BNP: why, knowing what we all know about the nastiness of the party, did some 750,000 Britons vote for it in this year’s European elections?’ (5) The fact that the BNP continues to win votes in various elections – most recently in this week’s council byelections – is something that the political class finds extremely disconcerting.
The makers of The Secret Agent seem to hope that their documentary will show BNP voters the error of their ways; the Sun newspaper’s front-page and editorial coverage of the documentary (headline: ‘BLOODY NASTY PEOPLE’) expresses a similar hectoring purpose in relation to its readership (6).
The irony is that it is precisely programmes like The Secret Agent that help to build up the BNP into a national political force, rather than any qualities possessed by the BNP itself. Gwynne’s film showed that the BNP has little going for it by way of politics, policies or convincing arguments; you would be hard-pushed to find an individual as lacking in charisma as Nick Griffin. Yet the media’s obsession with Griffin and his party has helped to transform the BNP into the big talking point of British politics.
Most of those who vote BNP do so, not because they are hardcore racists or because there is anything attractive about the BNP, but rather as a way of giving two fingers to the mainstream parties. When large numbers of people feel turned off by party politics – and when the best reason that the mainstream parties can give for voting is that if we don’t the BNP will get in, a kind of electoral blackmail – is it so surprising that some express their disaffection by voting for the BNP?
The more we talk up the threat from the BNP, the more we divert public attention to it that it doesn’t deserve. And the more we seek to restrict the free speech of the BNP and others we don’t like, the more censorious our political culture becomes.
The best way to grapple with BNP cranks is not to agonise over them and give them yet more publicity through TV and newspaper exposés, but to debate them head-on – the quicker that we might dismiss them, and move on to debating something more interesting.
Crucifying public debate, by Josie Appleton
TV UK, 23 October, by Dolan Cummings
spiked-issue: Free speech
(1) Going undercover in the BNP, BBC News, 15 July 2004; The BNP is thoroughly nasty, so why did 750,000 people vote for it?, Tom Utley, Daily Telegraph, 16 July 2004
(2) BNP activists admit to race crime, BBC News, 15 July 2004; BNP leader repeats Islam attack , BBC News, 16 July 2004
(3) ‘Arrest them’, The Sun, 16 July 2004
(4) BNP activists admit to race crime, BBC News, 15 July 2004
(5) The BNP is thoroughly nasty, so why did 750,000 people vote for it?, Tom Utley, Daily Telegraph, 16 July 2004
(6) See ‘Bloody nasty people’, Emily Smith, The Sun, 15 July 2004; ‘Jail these men’, The Sun, 15 July 2004
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