Thursday, 22 October 2009

Censorship in a pluralist society? No, thank you!

The BBC has been criticized by certain members of the British Cabinet and anti-fascist groups for its decision to invite the leader of the UK's British National Party, onto its popular Question Time programme. The BNP is a far-right, whites-only political party that has only recently gained marginal democratic legitimacy to their extremist agenda through victory of some seats at UK elections at local and European levels, although they have yet to gain any representation at parliamentary level. Nick Griffin, the BNP's leader, who became a UK Member of European Parliament this past May, will be appearing tonight as a part of Question Time's panel. Opponents of the BNP argue that it is wrong to give media representation on such a high-profile programme to a figure whose sole purpose seems to be to incite racial hatred. After all, the BBC is a publicly-funded corporation based in a country that prides itself on its multicultural diversity and inclusivity.

Mark Thompson, the BBC's director general, defends its decision to invite Nick Griffin onto Question Time with the argument that it is the broadcaster's duty to allow the public 'to hear the full range of political perspectives' and that to succumb to political pressures and rescind its invitation to Nick Griffin is to breach its 'central principle of impartiality'. I couldn't agree more. The exclusion of a group like the BNP, no matter how vile and ignorant and completely regressive I may find them, is tantamount to censorship and such an act threatens what is precious and magnificent about a pluralist society like contemporary Great Britain - freedom of speech and expression. Yes, people like the BNP and Nick Griffin will test the boundaries of one's conviction for such types of freedom but alas, this kind of complexity is a part of living in a truly democratic society, one with enough sophisticated and educated people who can decide for themselves what ideas they can be exposed to and more importantly, how they will process such ideas.

Is it entirely possible that the BBC is generating this controversy for some sort of superficial gain, e.g. media interest and higher ratings? Of course, it is. Then, again, being the sole publicly-funded broadcaster in the UK, it's not like the BBC could be accused of drumming up media attention and publicity in order to gain new sponsors and advertisers.

Having said all that, I cannot wait to witness the bloodbath that will take place tonight. The other members of the panels are the Conservative peer, Lady Warsi, who is of Pakistani descent and a lawyer by trade so I am sure she won't be at lost for words in her encounter with Griffin, Jack Straw, the justice secretary, Chris Huhne, the Lib Dem home affairs spokesman and Bonnie Greer, a black American playwright and critic who lives in Britain. Nick Griffin might see this as an opportunity to take on 'the enemy' but I see this as an opportunity for an educated man (believe it or not, the man graduated from Cambridge University...albeit, with a 2:2) to be exposed for the fool that he is. In The Guardian, where I read about this story, I was particularly compelled by what Ben Bradshaw, the culture secretary, had to say:

'I have always thought we have to take the BNP on. I have always thought they condemn themselves as soon as they open their mouths. In a democracy where they have elected representatives not just at European level but at local level it is very difficult for a broadcaster to exclude them … We should not give these people the opportunity to claim they are being gagged'.

In other words, by giving them this platform, the BBC may have just given the BNP the pistol with which it may shoot itself in the foot. Here's hoping.

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