Monday, 19 October 2009

Political debate

Apologies for the potentially long, boring, misguided and excessively political ramblings that follow. My attempts to get post-material from the day's news may produce results that are far less entertaining than readers would hope...

There's been quite a lot of press coverage about Nick Griffin of the BNP appearing on an upcoming episode of Question Time, most recently concerning the threats of a legal challenge, should they proceed.

Personally, I think that the idea of denying a platform to groups we (as a societal majority) disagree with is dubious at the best of times, and that denying a platform to that group once they actually represent people in a democratic capacity is verging on dangerous. Nick Griffin, as an MEP for Britain, represents us politically, however much many of us may disagree with his views, and to try to block him from appearing alongside other elected representatives on a political programme would smack of bias. That bias (i.e. anti-BNP sentiment) being held by a majority doesn't make it any less of a bias, and surely the BBC should not take that into account when deciding on a panel.

The argument against a generally-opposed group appearing alongside more established parties is ordinarily that it gives them an aura of respectability, and that to paint them as an acceptable choice is a bad idea when they are simply a minority with an extreme view - a meaningless choice on the ballot paper for those with similar prejudices. This argument becomes weaker as the BNP become an active representational political force, however, since opposition to them where such opposition is not shown to similarly unpopular parties (polls-wise, at least), begins to look like discrimination. Are we really comfortable as a society saying that the views of the BNP are so toxic that we dare not debate with them in public, in case it does more harm than good? If so, that shows serious misgivings either about our ability to argue against them or against the medium of debate.

I would seriously worry about any party or politician who showed concern about the first point there. Unwillingness to debate with someone who you disagree with because you are concerned about being unable to stand up to them is a sign of a poor debater or of a poor ideology. A politician with either of these characteristics would do well to re-examine his profession.

On the other hand, I have much more sympathy for concern about the second point. If we are worried about giving the BNP a platform because that platform can be exploited, then we need to think about changing the rules of the platform. Question time is certainly not a perfect medium for debate. Like any television debate, it is time-limited and vulnerable to soundbite domination by someone with a quick mind. Someone trying to make a point can be entirely drowned out by another guest who is louder and more forceful. With five people talking at once, valid points are not always returned to, and useful lines of reasoning can be lost.

As with anything presented for mainstream consumption, it cannot be rigorous debate, because that is not entertaining enough for broadcast. Although it would be interesting to see each argument the BNP put forward being torn apart by a team of analysts with the full backing of a database of statistics, and all the time they needed to construct a perfectly-worded rebuttal, it would not make BBC primetime, and would not be watched by enough people to make a difference in public opinion.

So what are we left with? We can ban the BNP from appearing on question time because we disagree with their view and we worry that within the boundaries of the programme we would not be able to stop them coming out looking reasonable and supportable, or we can challenge them in a more rigorous environment that will get no press and no interest.

There's no easy answer, but I would argue that it is better to get the arguments against the BNP out in the open as quickly as possible and avoid the appearance of a society so afraid of an extreme ideology that it must ban it from the airwaves lest it infect more people. If we keep treating the BNP as a special case, they will continue to claim that they are underdogs, treated badly because no one understands them. Proving their arguments do not stand up is the only way to stop them looking like an acceptable choice that is unfairly picked on, and if we need to debate with them in non-ideal conditions to do this, then that is the risk we must take.

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