Making public debate history

Why should the authorities have the right to shut up both Make Poverty History and the BNP?

Sandy Starr

Topics Politics

Q: What do the Make Poverty History campaign and the far-right British National Party have in common? A: Both were subject to official censure this week, for daring to express a political opinion.

Following the widespread broadcast, during the recent Live 8 jamboree, of celebrity-filled ads for Make Poverty History, UK media regulator Ofcom (the Office of Communications) has banned the campaign from any further advertising on TV and radio, on the grounds that it ‘seeks to achieve important changes to the policies of the UK government and those of other Western governments’ (1). And the Communications Act 2003 prohibits advertising ‘by or on behalf of a body whose objects are wholly or mainly of a political nature’ (2). It’s worth noting that the ban was prompted not by complaints from the public, but by nervous broadcasters approaching Ofcom for advice on whether they could show such ads.

Sadly, but entirely predictably, Make Poverty History protested against the ban, not by insisting upon its right to promote and elicit support for its views, but by denying that its aims or its ads were in any way political: ‘This advertisement simply highlights the fact that a child dies every three seconds because of preventable poverty. The millions of people who are wearing a white band or taking action as part of this campaign do not see it as a narrow party political issue. They see it as the great moral issue of our time.’ (3)

It seems that Make Poverty History and its supporters subscribe to the general consensus that the worst thing anyone can be these days is explicitly political. In claiming that they represent ‘the great moral issue of our time’, those behind Make Poverty History seek to place themselves beyond political criticism (4).

This moral high ground is not available to this week’s other victim of contemporary censoriousness, the widely reviled BNP. Little or no sympathy is likely to be expressed over the fact that the entire print run of the September issue of the BNP’s newspaper, The Voice of Freedom, was impounded after arriving at Dover from abroad. The police seized the newspapers, after being alerted to their existence by customs officers, to check whether any public order offences had been committed. The newspapers are now to be handed back to the BNP, but sample copies will be retained by the authorities, who may still seek prosecution on the grounds that the content constitutes incitement to racial hatred (5).

You don’t have to be sympathetic either to the bigoted rubbish put about by the BNP or to the moralistic rubbish put about by Make Poverty History, to be concerned by the official restrictions placed on these two very different institutions. When objectionable views can be suppressed on the grounds that they amount to ‘incitement’ (a dangerously nebulous legal category that fudges the distinction between speech and action), and when even the most popular campaigns can be suppressed because they are ‘political’ (even as those behind them seek to disassociate themselves from politics), then you have a depressing picture of the state of public debate today.

Public debate thrives on openness and confrontation. If groups such as the BNP harbour views that are moronic and objectionable, then let these views be published and expressed in the open – all the better to defeat and ridicule them. The current situation, where every pronouncement by a crank on the far right (or on the fringes of militant Islam, come to that) is scrutinised for ‘evidence’ of incitement, simply makes martyrs of those who deserve nothing more than our contempt. The BBC’s 2004 undercover documentary The Secret Agent, which prompted the latest series of inquiries into the BNP’s activities, did more to promote and inflate this fringe organisation than it could ever have done off its own bat (6).

Similarly, scrutinising advertisements and other broadcasting content for evidence of political opinion, and then treating such opinion as problematic wherever it is detected, lets the likes of Make Poverty History off the hook. Politics is treated with suspicion and cynicism these days, because it is unfashionable to be associated with self-interest or any form of vested interest. That’s why Make Poverty History seeks to establish moralistic rather than ‘narrow party political’ credentials. But if politics is the process whereby we deliberate about the issues that face us and the future direction that society should take, then popular philanthropic endeavours deserve to be subjected to the same standard of rigorous criticism as does the BNP’s bigotry.

The attempts to purge the media of political content – or rather to label political content and restrict it to its appointed slot, as though it were some sort of radioactive contaminant – help to create an ever blander public sphere, where mainstream political assumptions go unquestioned and alternative opinions struggle to make it out of the starting blocks. Ofcom has done much to promote this unhealthy combination of blandness and unaccountability, acting upon complaints about media content regardless of the number that it receives (one complaint can justify a ban), and issuing decisions that are unintentionally comical in their po-faced pedantry (7).

Earlier this year, for example, the BBC was rebuked by Ofcom for two consecutive editions of the children’s programme Blue Peter, that between them allegedly managed to offend just about every political constituency in Northern Ireland. In one episode, a Blue Peter presenter apparently caused offence by referring to the fact that the Irish province of Ulster is represented by a red hand on its flag. Then the following week’s episode caused further offence, by featuring a map of the British Isles – submitted by an eight-year-old – that was entirely covered by the Union Jack.

How did the BBC respond? According to Ofcom, ‘the BBC said that Blue Peter had no political agenda and aimed to be fair and even-handed to every sector of the community’, ‘senior management in Children’s BBC had since drawn the attention of the team to the need for greater care with such matters’, and ‘BBC Belfast’s political editor had also briefed the team’. Ofcom was satisfied by this, declaring that ‘in view of the action taken by the BBC, we consider the matter resolved’ (8). Well that’s all right then.

Only it isn’t all right. If the BBC is compelled to apologise and take action for such bizarre overreactions to the minutiae of its children’s programming, then one hesitates to contemplate the restrictions on adult political debate that exist today. Just about the only forceful opinion that is popularly entertained and encouraged in today’s media – not least by the BBC – is a generalised cynicism about politics, and a general hostility towards politicians. This cynicism is routinely mistaken for robust political debate; in fact it is corrosive of political debate (9).

As I have argued previously on spiked, restrictions on free speech have evolved from old-fashioned censorship of specific ideas considered beyond the pale, to a broader hostility towards confident and forceful opinion (see ‘Communication ethics’ and the new censorship). Since those in authority lack ambitious ideas, and feel increasingly isolated from the public, they are jittery about anything that might seize the public’s imagination – to the extent that they unwittingly draw attention to and promote every crackpot who has the temerity to stand on a soapbox.

New powers of censorship, wielded through bodies such as Ofcom – and through laws such as those prohibiting incitement to racial or religious hatred – combine with popular cynicism towards politics to denigrate public debate. Instead of a situation where a popular campaign is banned from advertising on the grounds that it is political, and the campaigners respond to the ban by insisting that their campaign is no such thing, we should aspire to a world where all political opinions – from those of Make Poverty History to those of the BNP – can stand or fall on their own merit in the court of public opinion.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Free speech

(1) Ofcom Broadcast Bulletin 43 (.pdf 78.2 KB), Office of Communications, 12 September 2005, p9

(2) Communications Act 2003, section 321

(3) Make Poverty History click ad faces ban, on the Make Poverty History website

(4) See It’s too easy for everybody to love Live 8, by Mick Hume; Should we make ‘Make Poverty History’ history?, by Brendan O’Neill

(5) Police hand back seized BNP paper, BBC News, 12 September 2005

(6) See Blowing up the BNP, by Sandy Starr

(7) See Commercial brake, by Sandy Starr; Watching what we watch, by Sandy Starr

(8) Ofcom Broadcast Bulletin 34 (.pdf 144 KB), 5 May 2005, p7

(9) See The most dangerous ‘ism’ now is the new cynicism, by Mick Hume; BBC: get back in your box, by Brendan O’Neill

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Topics Politics


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