Nick Griffin, the leader of the tiny British National Party, has a very low profile outside the UK. Their best political showing has been to pick up two seats in the European Parliament, when they polled 6% of the UK vote in that election in June 2009.
They are a minority party and are unlikely to ever lead political thought in the UK, let alone Europe.
Griffin has never appeared on public television to either promote or defend his party. The BBC, acknowledging that he now represents a small, but distinct, subset of the British population, invited him onto their long-running political panel discussion show, Question Time.
Outside, angry demonstrators gathered to protest Griffin’s arrival. Hundreds of police battled hundreds of protestors. 25 broke through a barrier and managed to make it inside the BBC buildings before being dragged back outside. By the end of the evening, three policemen had been injured and six protestors arrested.
The reason for this excitement is the platform espoused by the BNP. They demand that all “foreigners” be deported and that the borders be closed to immigrants. They’re a single-issue, racist party. That’s it.
There has been more than enough written about the BBC’s decision to invite the man that many Brits find personally offensive onto the public broadcaster. I’m a foreign-born Brit, and Jewish, so hardly someone that the BNP would allow as a member, but I believe that the BBC did the right thing.
Watching Griffin bumble about, claiming not to be a Nazi or a racist is amusing stuff. It allows his poison to be drawn and his opinions to be challenged, debated and held to account.
Unfortunately, that process is somewhat drained knowing that he had to fight his way through a lynch-mob just to get into the studio. Griffin may be a Nazi, but he’s a brave Nazi.
Breeding Headlines Breeding Extremists
There are a lot of people, both politicians and pundits, who make their living by catering to the fears and phobias of marginal groups. Until the coming of the telecommunications age, if these nutters wanted a mainstream platform, they’d have to pay for it themselves. It would cost a lot.
The Internet changed all that. Now even the most isolated loony can get a message out to other isolated members of the faithful. They can organise, communicate and incite each other to further levels of apoplexy.
But even this wouldn’t have much penetration into the lives of ordinary people.
Except for bloggers looking for something to write about.
Newspapers have long known the importance of a good headline. The film The Shipping News has the following exchange between Quoyle (Kevin Spacey), who is learning how to write for a local newspaper, and a colleague, Billy Pretty, played by Gordon Pinsent:
Pretty: It’s finding the centre of your story, the beating heart of it, that’s what makes a reporter. You have to start by making up some headlines. You know: short, punchy, dramatic headlines. Now, have a look, [pointing at dark clouds gathering in the sky over the ocean] what do you see? Tell me the headline.
Quoyle: HORIZON FILLS WITH DARK CLOUDS?
Pretty: IMMINENT STORM THREATENS VILLAGE.
Quoyle: But what if no storm comes?
Pretty: VILLAGE SPARED FROM DEADLY STORM.
The problem with this approach is that it leads to a selective understanding of events. When compounded by the rapid accretion of millions of “me-too” copies of the same story, it amounts to a “conversation” and swiftly becomes accepted wisdom.
It also becomes the benchmark for future headlines to rise above. This breeds ever-more hyperbolic headlines and hypes up the emotions of ever more people.
It is also an easy and cheap way to manipulate the mass media (which is what bloggers are these days) into giving away free advertising for a very small and indifferent bunch of nut-jobs.
All that a fledgling fascist has to do is make some inflammatory remark and watch the inevitable response from the blogosphere drive up awareness of his message. He can feed back into that opprobrium by simply selecting from some of the more extreme opposition comments and feed those back to his own support base.
What this does is remove the capacity for debate and push both opponents to the absolute extremes.
Coping with extremism in the blogosphere
Clearly progressive bloggers don’t set out to provide a platform for fascists and wing-nuts anymore than the BBC set out to promote the agenda of Nick Griffin.
The BBC’s approach is the best, and probably most difficult. It is to invite Griffin to present his own ideas and let him defend himself in a reasoned and reasonable debate. That debate couldn’t happen because it had become a moral crusade before he even arrived.
The violent protests show people that Griffin and those most opposed to him are equally thuggish and unpleasant. The true outrage and horror of the last 24 hours has not been Griffin, but the lack of respect for the institutions of the state, the press and the law exhibited by those claiming to defend it.
Now, it’s a tough job asking everyone with a loudhailer to speak softly, but that is precisely what is necessary.
Never before has the capacity for organisation and response to civil disagreements been so all-encompassing and speedy. Yet democracy and free speech is exactly all about giving the most unpleasant fringes of society a good airing.
Sunlight is a fantastic disinfectant. But baying for the blood of those at the edge just drives them and their supporters further away. They may express their fears badly, but not allowing them to express their fears at all will mean that they are never acknowledged, discussed and recognised.
Fighting extremism with extremism simply makes everyone a nut-case.