A couple of weeks back, on October 22, the British Broadcasting Corporation faced a major test and failed spectacularly. In its favour I should add that in the days leading up to October 22, the BBC passed another test with commendable courage. But its collapse on the evening of October 22, amid the debris of its own principles, eclipsed the firmness of purpose shown in the preceding days.
When in early October it was announced that Nick Griffin would appear on the BBC's Question Time, there was an outcry. Anti-racist and anti-fascist organizations said that the appearance of Mr Griffin would give his far-right British National Party a degree of legitimacy and encourage violence against ethnic minorities. Ken Livingstone, former Mayor of London and Peter Hain, former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, both called on the BBC to withdraw the invitation to Mr Griffin. Protestors gathered at Broadcasting House when Griffin arrived and there were clashes with the police.
But hats off to the BBC. They stood their ground and insisted that Mr Griffin was entitled to air time like other elected politicians, and to treat him otherwise would lay the Corporation open to legal action. But then the BBC headed into the fence represented by the actual programme and sent the woodwork flying.
There were three other panelists on Question Time and all were unremittingly hostile to Mr Griffin. David Dimbleby was the chairman of the discussion and he questioned Mr Griffin in a bristling manner from start to finish. The studio audience numbered around one hundred and all of them appeared to detest Mr Griffin. The BNP man was repeatedly interrupted, laughed at, mocked and condemned. To watch the programme was to watch a verbal bloodsport, with Mr Griffin as the fox. So much so that Mr Griffin now says he's thinking of taking legal action on the grounds that he was discriminated against, not by being refused an invitation onto the programme, but by his treatment when he appeared. In short he says, and with some justification, that the BBC, whose reputation rests on its claims to impartiality and balance, produced a programme that was totally biased against him and his party.
I'm hesitant to say this next bit, because there are people who make judgements by association rather than reflection, but I'll say it anyway: we've been here before, with Britain's neighbouring national broadcaster, RTE.
In 1994 Gerry Adams was invited onto RTE's The Late Late Show. When he appeared presenter Gay Byrne refused to shake hands with him. A hostile panel of four, including playwright Hugh Leonard and former SDLP leader Austin Currie, lined up against him. The audience…It's at this point the parallel with the BBC's Question Time breaks down. While the studio audience in London eagerly joined in the verbal assault on Griffin last month, the 1994 studio audience in Dublin sided with Adams. The more the panel and Gay Byrne harried and sniped at him, the more the people in the studio came to his defence.
There's no denying that dramatic clashes like these grab the attention and are good for ratings, but they distract us from the main issue and are bad for the principle of free speech. What happened to the unhappy BBC a couple of weeks back was that it over-reacted to charges of giving publicity to racism: in attempting to present its anti-racist credentials, it crashed into the next fence, which was its claim to be the guardian of objectivity and fairness.
RTE hasn't an international reputation to protect but it does have a duty to allow all political viewpoints to be aired. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s RTE ( and later the BBC) banned Sinn Féin from the airwaves and in doing so made fools of themselves. On one famous occasion a contributor to an RTE discussion on the cultivation of mushrooms was hastily cut off when he revealed that he was a Sinn Féin member. Today the ban is gone but most republicans would point to a discernible bias against republicans on RTE and throughout the twenty-six county media.
The core issue is that like or dislike of a political viewpoint, has no bearing – or should have no bearing – on the right of that viewpoint to be given a fair hearing. To decide otherwise is to indicate that you don't trust the public to hear the argument and/or come to a sensible conclusion. Instead the broadcaster, or the government behind the broadcaster, believes it is the best judge of what ideas the public mind should be exposed to. Then by blocking inclusion, as during the years of censorship, or by unfairly attacking a particular political viewpoint, it attempts to do the public's thinking for it. And if that isn't fascist thinking in action, my Auntie Maggie is Rush Limbaugh's lover.
Footnote: I was talking to a barrister during the summer and I asked him the old question: 'Don't you feel uneasy defending someone you believe to be guilty?' 'Not at all' he told me. 'In fact I particularly welcome such clients. It's in the fair-minded defence of people whom we dislike or even detest that our judicial system gets to show it really works'.
BBC, RTE – Fox News – are you listening?