What is the BBC’s game?

Anthony Barnett probes the political agenda behind the BBC’s invitation to BNP leader Nick Griffin to appear on Question Time

As we prepare to sit down and watch the leader of our New Fascist party on Question Time, we need to ask what the BBC is up to? The argument about ‘whether or not’ Nick Griffin MEP should be invited to take part is less important, indeed it can play the BBC’s game. 

It is necessary and important to stress that Griffin is an English Fascist. This means he wears a cloak of reasonableness wrapped around his prejudice.

We had a widely read encounter with this kind of politics in the early days of OurKingdom (www.OurKingdom.org). Choice phrases give the game away. Yesterday Griffin was interviewed by Martha Kearney on the BBC’s World at One. [1] 
In the course of his answers he referred to prisoners in British jails as “vermin”. She seemed to think this acceptable and let it pass. Of course, there are some very evil men behind bars in the UK. There are also over 4,000 women (in 2006, the last date given on the Prison Service website [2]) and many sad, dyslexic short-term prisoners. To describe any of them as “vermin” is to fundamentally dehumanise some of our own citizens and part of the human race. Rats and cockroaches are vermin. You trap, kill poison… or gas them.

The word was no slip, it occurs in official BNP communications. It gives permission to dream of extreme violence. It signals the real Fascism behind the New Fascism.

In these circumstances as the moral failure of the political class brings forth demons, the BNP has to be confronted. Stuart Hall got it right [3]: they need to be engaged with by the media when they are part of a news story, but they should not be on Question Time giving us their views about everything as if they are an acceptable part of fireside conversation.

So what is the BBC up to? I refer to it in the singular as having an approach and an attitude. Of course, it employs a lot of people with minds of their own who have differences of view. But with over 40 people earning more than the Prime Minister and executives looking after its ‘vision’ paid over £500,000 a year, it is also a machine with a commanding perspective of its own, however this may be arrived at.

What it claims is that it speaks in a representative way and objective way, permitting wide access to the arguments that genuinely touch people, thus playing a responsible democratic role in the service of the public. 

The reality is that it is part of the larger political class now seeking to perpetuate itself in the face of public discontent. Take the expanses scandal. This genuinely alarmed and alienated the public, to put it mildly.

Did the BBC with its immense research facilities help to break the story? After it broke, did the BBC track down the most egregious examples or invest in its own sustained coverage of the issue that so moved the public, for example by commissioning a series of documentaries on the expenses culture of the Commons, the Lords and the different political parties? Did it keep the issue alive through the party conference season, as the public wished? 

Did it, hell!

Of course, it had been warned by the Prime Minister that it too might be subject to ‘transparency’ so it had better be careful…. What? You thought that the BBC had of its own volition published its expenses? As openDemocracy Chairman David Elstein points out in a wide ranging speech on public service broadcasting in the digital age:

“The BBC’s much-touted publication of the expenses incurred by its senior executives” was nothing of the sort. It was just the limited amount reclaimed by those executives, after they had initially laid out cash. 99% of total executive expenses are actually covered by central bookings, so not requiring reimbursement, and so still unpublished.”[4]

To put it kindly, the BBC is part of the expenses racket and its associated culture of entitlement which it defends from public scrutiny.

Or take the issue of modern liberty which the Convention that I co-directed with Henry Porter brought to the public’s attention in a concerted fashion in February.[5] It got widespread press coverage and was cross-party in its approach and we helped uncover a profound, intelligent, open-minded public concern about the reshaping of the state and its treatment of citizens. This is surely exactly the kind of responsible issue that a public service broadcaster should embrace. It allows important questions about how we are governed to be asked, from an interesting and new angle with clearly important scientific and technological changes being part of the mix. Was the BBC interested? Was it, hell!

The BBC, it turned out, was making videos saying that it knew where you lived, to reinforce the intrusive imposition of the license fee. It is itself an extension of the surveillance society and the database state (for our own good of course).

One related aspect of this is its support for unaccountable coercion aka the Met. See Guy Aitchison and Stuart White’s patient documentation in OurKingdom.[5]

The Convention showed that there is a smart public that does not want to be patronised and wants to think about how we are being governed.

This same attitude emerged again more strongly with the expenses crisis. A true public service broadcaster as opposed to a regime service broadcaster would welcome this, probing the strength and vitality of the concerns. This should be the duty of the BBC. Instead…it broadcasts fascists.

Why? Because it is in the interests of the regime service broadcaster to project public opinion as dangerous and potentially racist. Responsible democratic opposition is squished and deprived of ‘oxygen’. But if you can show that beneath the veneer the public are worse than unwashed they are proto-fascist, why then, we will indeed need the BBC to protect us, won’t we?

It refuses to cover matters that could make it accountable in a good ongoing way, that would help open up the political class to democracy. It will, however, cover the dark side of public opinion to ensure that the rest of us are faced with a choice between that and them. In short, it wants us to think of the great public as proto-fascist. This is the significance of the revelation by the current New Statesman political editor James Macintyre who was a former producer on Question Time, quoted by Stuart Jefferies in the Guardian:

“They’ve always wanted him on and I went to meetings where I had to argue against that position. They lost the battle with management then and now, after two years’ lobbying, they have won.” [6]

The argument about whether the BBC should give Griffin a home on our screens should not be conducted in narrow terms to reinforce the idea that there is only a choice between the rise of the New Fascists or better government by the Old Patricians. In that case we will have to back the latter and the BBC executives can laugh all the way to the bank.


  1. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00n7j35#synopsis
  2. http://www.hmprisonservice.gov.uk/adviceandsupport/prison_life/femaleprisoners/
  3. http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/oct/16/does-question-time-accept-racists
  4. http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/sep/24/david-elstein-beesley-lecture
  5. http://www.modernliberty.net/
  6. http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/oct/16/does-question-time-accept-racists

Anthony Barnett is Editor of OurKingdom, a blog on the Opendemocracy.net website which engages with constitutional questions and the future of the UK, where this article appears.

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