COMMENT / BBC is correct to give platform to far-rightist
As repugnant as the views of racists are, not airing them would do a disservice to the public.
Five years ago, Radio Finland broadcasted a unique historical find from its archives: the only recording of Adolf Hitler speaking in conversation, and not from a podium.
In 1942, the German leader visited Helsinki and met with Finland's leaders. The after-dinner speeches over, he settled down for a quiet chat with his hosts. Not surprisingly, the Fuhrer monopolized most of the conversation, rambling on about why he failed to take out Britain in the early stages of the war.
Unbeknownst to him, the Finnish radio technician had not switched of his equipment.
Hitler may have been the most significant and influential figure in the 20th century, but he was never interviewed by the media.
Joseph Goebbel's genius propaganda machine fully realized that Hitler's hypnotic effect on the masses would only be achieved through grandiloquent speeches at mass rallies or broadcast at full volume over the radio and public loudspeakers. Hitler could never have done "Oprah" or "Larry King Live" (though Jon Stewart on had a hilarious chapter called "Adolf Hitler: The Larry King interview" in his book "Naked Pictures of Famous People") and he wouldn't have come off very well in a newspaper interview either.
It wasn't just the personal style of jerky, start-stop harangue that would have made him an impossible interviewee. Even before he became chancellor of Germany, Hitler would never have allowed a journalist to actually ask him awkward questions. Any reporter who would have been so bold would have left party headquarters without his kneecaps.
Could Hitler ever have come to power and captured the admiration of the German people if he had been subjected to the kind of attention that journalism subjects democratic politicians to today? Perhaps not, but then who knows.
With the speed of today's media, his message would have reached an eager German public sooner and Hitler might have even taken power earlier.
Giving racists airtime
This column was written a few hours before the appearance of Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party on the BBC's "Question Time" last night. Readers who don't follow British politics closely may be surprised at the fuss this event has generated over the last few weeks in Britain.
While in most democracies, leaders of fringe parties, even if their platform is viewed by many as racist, are allowed their share of the limelight, most parts of the British media and especially the BBC, for various reasons, have been reluctant for years to interview the leadership of the BNP, along with other organizations promoting racist and fascistic tendencies.
But since the European Parliament elections four months ago, in which the BNP for the first time won seats, the BBC, operating under a public charter, must give the party airtime. That includes primetime "Question Times," where senior politicians, journalists and public figures field difficult questions from the audience.
The BBC's decision to allow Griffin on "Question Time" this week has been the subject of much debate, and his co-panelists were chosen with great care by the other political parties and the corporation. A number of mainstream politicians, pundits and anti-racism organizations have sharply criticized the decision to include the BNP leader. (Though, interestingly, the Jewish community establishment has mainly remained silent on the issue.(
The BBC's directors have responded, rather apologetically, that once the BNP has proved that it is a party with sufficient support to gain representation on the local government level and in the European Parliament, it is obligated to allow the party's leaders on its programs.
In Israel the question of airtime for racist politicians was settled over two decades ago. Following the election to the Knesset of Rabbi Meir Kahana in 1984, the Israel Broadcasting Authority embarked on a policy of severely limiting the airing of Kahana's anti-Arab speeches and rallies.
Kahana took the IBA to the court and in a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court justices wrote that, "Freedom of speech is not just the freedom to express or hear views acceptable to all. Freedom of speech is also the freedom to express dangerous, obnoxious and perverse views, that the public abhors ... It includes also the freedom to racist expression and the concept that the racist public finds solace in the freedom of speech is not to be accepted as it is a threat to democracy. The belief that freedom of speech covers also extreme and racist views applies especially to the freedom of a political party participating in the parliamentary process."
This is a legalistic approach, very similar to that taken by the BBC, but there is an additional, equally important, reason to have racists on television.
We all have a racist gene in our DNA. Xenophobia may be a disgusting thing ,but fear of the alien is a human trait that few, if any of us, are capable of completely conquering. Not only must we suppress our involuntary reactions, but there are also real and practical dilemmas to be faced.
Are certain policies and laws the result of bigotry and prejudice, or are they based on legitimate concerns and the opposition to them simply a misplaced sense of political correctness? The fact that in most Western countries only a handful of politicians are prepared to openly espouse racist views is not a reason to cut them off from the oxygen of publicity. Neo-Nazis and fascists, racial supremacists, radical Islamists and the Kahanists should all be given face-time, not just because it is their democratic right, but more so we can all confront the demons within ourselves.
And it doesn't matter whether they fumble their lines or succeed in making their case, as many feared that Griffin may have done last night. We have to watch them whatever the outcome.
The BBC is right to have Griffin and other racists on its most respectable shows, it is wrong to apologize. By doing so it is simply fulfilling its democratic and journalistic duties.