Hating Nick: a shared national experience

Alex Hochuli reports from a London university that showed Question Time on a big screen in a bar, football-style.

Alex Hochuli

Topics Politics

Word came from an acquaintance yesterday evening that the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) students’ union would be showing Question Time live on a big screen in the student bar. With protests outside BBC Television Centre already causing a fuss, and a feeling that the world and its mother was on the sofa ready to watch ‘Nazi Nick’ say something racist (we hoped!), a couple of colleagues and I decided to make this national viewing event truly communal and attend SOAS’s viewing party.

Arriving at SOAS, we were unsure whether we would be allowed in, none of us being enrolled at that university. The thought occurred that if we were unsuccessful, we could always head off to a nearby pub and catch the programme there… except we couldn’t. This wasn’t a World Cup match and pubs wouldn’t be showing it, we discovered. But such was the strength of feeling about Griffin’s appearance on the show (‘the nation expects’?) that we could be forgiven for thinking, albeit briefly, that this was something more than just a weekly – and often very dull – current affairs show.

We got in. Waiting in the slowly filling-up bar, a young female student confessed to me that she didn’t really ‘do’ politics and never watched Question Time. But this time was different because, in the words of her friend, ‘it’s an event, isn’t it?’. By the time the ‘event’ was due to begin, SOAS’s messy, poster-flyered student bar was near full, with around 160 students occupying every seat and a good deal of floor space.

As the lights dimmed and all turned to face the big projector screen, there was a genuine sense of expectation in the room. People chatting in a corner were shushed, others were asked to sit down and stop blocking the screen. Clearly, this was not a moment to be missed. The panto-politics on screen delivered and the gallery duly responded, as everyone in the bar booed at the first mention of Griffin’s name.

As justice secretary Jack Straw launched into an attack on Griffin, using the idea of Britain’s glorious war against the Nazis as a stick with which to beat the BNP leader, the SOAS audience cheered him on. Here was the supposedly radical, anti-imperialist SOAS student body applauding as a sitting cabinet member channelled Churchill and the spirit of the ‘good war’, in which Britain’s multi-ethnic army drawn from the colonies were sent to the slaughter.

Presenter David Dimbleby then tried to draw Griffin into admitting to taking a revisionist view of the Holocaust. Again the students cheered. With Griffin tying himself in knots so as not to appear anti-Semitic, the cheers turned to laughs. These funny moments were widely shared. Asked later what was his favourite moment, one student said: ‘It was funny when Griffin disavowed his past – no one believed that!’

After a while, the audience settled down a little bit as the discussion on Question Time turned from explicit Griffin-baiting to immigration. As the main political parties locked horns in a game of immigration control Top Trumps, my own frustration got the best of me and I began to heckle about Jack Straw being the real authoritarian on the panel. ‘Open the borders!’, I shouted. Some of the students took up the chant (SOAS having recently been at the centre of rows over deportations of immigrant cleaners) but eventually I was told to shut up. Maybe I was ruining the SOAS’s version of the QT Shared National Experience.

The yah-boo viewing died down further once the Liberal Democrat Chris Huhne went into more detail about his party’s immigration policy (in a nutshell, he argued that the Lib Dem’s system of immigration control would be more effective than Labour’s). The curious fact was that, for all the barely suppressed excitement about this shared moment, every time the TV conversation veered slightly away from the event’s apparent raison d’être – BNP-baiting – people seemed to become bored. Some started chatting; others sloped off for a fag and a pint; others took the opportunity to text their mates. ‘When’s the pantomime coming back?’ they seemed to wonder.

With the cheers, boos and laughs delivered with decreasing gusto, Griffin’s argument that Britain should not be intervening in Iraq and Afghanistan was met with silence by the SOAS students; they couldn’t possibly be seen to agree with the leader of the BNP. Ten minutes from the end, a technical problem meant we were left with only audio. We listened to the remaining part of the programme and then the lights went on. ‘See you next time in Llandudno’, Dimbleby said to a rapidly emptying bar.

Outside, the students chatted in large groups, the vibe much like that after a moderately satisfying football match. ‘Yeah, it was good: Griffin got dicked on!’ ‘Oh?’, I asked a first year politics student. ‘Yeah, I guess, though that Tory woman wasn’t very interesting… actually none of it was.’ Okay, ‘we’ didn’t win, seemed to be the message, but at least Argentina got owned in the final. There was a bit of to-ing and a bit of fro-ing – a game of two halves as they say – but once it was over, people couldn’t quite remember what the excitement was about in the first place.

A multi-ethnic group of female students said they were glad it happened and that Griffin had been exposed as either an outright nasty racist or a slippery politician able to conceal his true views. Like many of the other students briefly hanging around before going home (or more likely, heading to another bar), they were all smiles. They had enjoyed themselves. But once it was over, all the collective sense of meaning that was gained from booing Griffin seemed to evaporate.

When I pressed some students on the principles of free speech, they responded ambivalently. ‘Maybe it was okay that Griffin was there to be shown up for being a facsist, but, um… um… I don’t remember what the point was.’ But by this stage, I wasn’t sure either. As I left, I was informed via text message that the social networks were abuzz with discussion about the ‘event’, people receiving more comments on their Facebook ‘status updates’ than ever before. Eager not to miss out on a second of this still ongoing Shared National Experience, I rushed home.

Alex Hochuli is an MPhil student at the University of Kent at Canterbury, and co-founder of the Institute of Ideas Current Affairs Forum. He is chairing the debate ‘It’s not fair! The Battle for Equality’ at at the Battle of Ideas festival on Saturday 31 October 2009.

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Topics Politics


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