by Adam Ford
Viewers of the BBC’s Question Time were confronted by many truly repellent outbursts from the platform on 22nd October. The screening – which had generated massive controversy due to the debut appearance of British National Party chairman Nick Griffin – often broke out into shouting and boos as the audience expressed their disgust with Griffin’s barely disguised racism and homophobia. But a significant early comment by another panellist went almost unnoticed amidst all the fury: Jack Straw claimed that Labour and the other ‘mainstream’ parties’ have a “moral compass”. In this article I will examine that claim, look at the ideological role of Question Time, and criticise the tactics of Unite Against Fascism and the Socialist Workers Party.
Since it began in 1979, Question Time has been a centrepiece of the BBC’s political coverage. During that time, it has played a significant role in framing the national policy debate, in determining which views are (and which are not) acceptable as ‘mainstream’. When the programme began, in the early days of Margaret Thatcher’s first Conservative government, there were four panellists – one each from Conservatives, Labour and the Liberals (as the third party were known at the time). The fourth panellist would be a prominent ‘talking head’, often from the fields of academia, the media or religion. In 1999, the panel was expanded to five guests, and the show experimented with ‘outsider’ figures, such as comedians, but this was quickly ditched.
The ‘mainstream’ of British politics has travelled far to the right since Question Time first hit the screens, as a result of accelerating globalisation and the ever-widening chasm between the richest and everyone else. Over that period, Question Time’s panels have marched in lockstep. For that reason alone, Griffin’s appearance during a time of economic collapse marks a deeply worrying lowpoint. Though the fourth and fifth guests can’t be from one of the three main parties, their views are normally broadly in line with the ‘mainstream’ consensus. On the rare occasions when a panellist’s views are outside the boundaries of ruling class respectability – either to the left or to the right – they can expect to be taken to task by the presenter. This serves to solidify the current boundaries in the public consciousness.
This is what happened yesterday. Nick Griffin – the representative of a racist political party which has recently had electoral success at the expense of the hated ‘mainstream’ – was hauled over the coals by David Dimbleby, who had the disrespectful air of a public school teacher reprimanding a wayward pupil. At one point, Dimbleby even asked Griffin “why are you smiling?” – a question that would never be asked of a politician from one of the three established parties.
Nowhere was this beating of the bounds more noticeable than in the section dealing with the BNP’s attempt to claim Winston Churchill – that cuddly totem of British imperialism – as one of their own. While it’s hard to imagine quotes such as “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes” going down badly at fascist meetings, Churchill has become a cherished icon of the British ruling class, thanks mainly to the fact that he was in charge for most of World War Two, he made some speeches, and Britain didn’t lose. In the mythology, this virulently anti-working class aristocratic eugenicist – and not the workers who fought Franco for example – is portrayed as having ‘defended freedom’ from Hitler’s Nazis. The BNP’s attempted appropriation of all this imagery is therefore their ultimate challenge to the ‘mainstream’.
While leading MPs had called on the BBC not to allow Griffin a platform, Labour’s ‘Justice Secretary’ Jack Straw, Baroness Warsi of the Conservatives and Chris Huhne of the Lib Dems took the opportunity to appear relatively reasonable and progressive. This at a time when all three are backing calls for massive attacks on working class living standards as a remedy for the unfolding historic crisis of the capitalist system. However, it was often hard to tell Griffin’s ‘concerned citizen’ act from Warsi – the Yorkshire-born daughter of Pakistani parents – who claimed that a Conservative government would set a cap on the numbers coming in. Huhne also complained that Labour had “lost control” of the borders.
But the prize for hypocrisy must surely go to Straw, whose “moral compass” always seems to guide him towards his own self interest as a spokesman for the UK capitalist elite. This is a man who, as Foreign Secretary, deceived the country in the build-up to the Iraq invasion – aimed at winning control over the country’s oilfields – which has cost hundreds of thousands of lives. As Home Secretary, he pushed through draconian attacks on civil liberties, and was in charge of the fortress conditions that saw fifty-eight Chinese migrants die as they were smuggled into the UK. And in 2006 he launched his own anti-Islam provocation, when he denounced women who choose to wear the niqab veil.
It is a healthy sign that so many people opposed Griffin having such a public platform for his views, and the protesters who invaded Television Centre acted bravely. But in the run-up to the appearance, the Socialist Workers Party-led Unite Against Fascism showed its reformist colours by appealing to the powers that be. The Socialist Worker even claimed that Griffin’s invite “…flies in the face of [the BBC's] responsibilities as a public service broadcaster.”
This painting of the BBC in ‘neutral’ colours misleads and disarms the working class. Day after day, it propagandises in favour of the elite, whether dealing with cuts and repression at home, or the state’s imperialist adventures abroad. It is less than a year since the Corporation – in the name of “neutrality” – refused to screen an emergency appeal for the Gazan victims of Israeli aggression. Question Time plays a key role in this whole process. What’s more, a party with more than fifty elected representatives could legitimately (in the purely legal sense of that term) demand significant airtime from a “public service broadcaster” following the norms of capitalist ‘democracy’.
It is certainly a terrible shame that BBC viewers were faced with Nick Griffin last night, but anyone calling for ‘mainstream’ politicians or establishment figures to step in and prevent certain political views being expressed should not be surprised when working class perspectives are also excluded. It is precisely that working class which must become conscious of itself as the capitalist crisis deepens, and make its own independent decisions about who gets airtime.