Dennis Hayes reflects on how debate and protest have become pantomime versions of what they once were
After the furore about the decision to let the BNP’s Nick Griffin speak on BBC’s Question Time (1), the numbers of complainers actually doubled after the programme, arguing that it was a ‘set up,’ a contrived denunciation of the BNP and Griffin, rather than the ‘normal’ discussion of a variety of topics. (2)
It is hard to see what was abnormal here. The Question Time format, which gives supposedly ordinary people in an ‘audience’ the opportunity to ask questions about recent news items of a panel of politicians and celebrities, always seems a ‘set up’ and it is usually even less interesting than last Thursday night.
That there was a very dull ‘debate’ on this particular Question Time was partly due to the focus of the programme which was a pantomime denunciation of a ‘villain’ who seemingly held nothing but unacceptable ideas. (3) Booing was allowed in case anyone was in doubt about the fact that this was a pantomime debate. (4)
The pantomime inside the BBC was preceded and accompanied by another pantomime outside, a pantomime protest. It was a frolicsome affair, with stunts, fancy dress, face masks and token incident for activists with some arrests. But the protesters were booing not only the BNP but ordinary people, who they saw as stupid and impressionable, so stupid and impressionable that the protesters were worried they would succumb to the BNP’s arguments and go out and commit racial ‘violence’ en masse. (5)
But the real pantomime was the pantomime of protest itself. It was a protest not to achieve any radical social goal but a reactionary act intended to censor and ban. In other words, it was not a ‘protest’ at all.
Eight million viewers watched this pantomime version of debate and many more heard about it or watched the pantomime of protest on TV. It could be argued that they lost out on the opportunity to hear Griffin take part in a real debate about several issues. I doubt it.
When I was interviewed for ‘Against the Grain’ in the Independent, because of my defence of unrestricted free speech and academic freedom, they headlined their article ‘I would invite the BNP to a debate’. (6) What I remember saying was “I would invite the BNP to a debate if they had anything to say”. I added that I couldn’t imagine they had anything interesting to say, for example, about education and schooling. I might say now that we lost the opportunity to find out if I’m right or wrong. This is a very small loss for me and a few curious viewers compared with the loss for the old left.
The pantomime of debate with the BNP on such a public ‘Platform’ meant that the censorious and illiberal policy of the old left to argue for ‘No Platform’ for racists and ‘fascists’ went into the dustbin of history. Faced with the fact that it has happened, student and trade unions, the Socialist Workers Party and its anti-racist and anti fascist campaigning groups will have to move towards more liberal positions on free speech rather than their traditional stance of ‘free speech for people we aggress with’.
Some individuals already have and several of the censors who played their part in the pantomime of protest outside the BBC had to admit that they were wrong and that Griffin had not come over well and done the BNP no favours.
You can apparently debate with the BNP in front of almost eight million people and find that Britain is not subjected to a tidal wave of racial violence (or a plague of locusts). But the left have been so used to calling for bans and proscriptions they probably won’t stop now. If they learned one thing from New Labour it was that banning is the best thing to do when you have contempt for ordinary people’s abilities to think, to reason and to make up their own minds about political matters. (7)
The pantomime protest was a moral and intellectual crime against freedom of speech that was self-defeating. It failed. We might not care as it seems that the only losers were six hundred censorious and illiberal protesters.
But what really came out of the pantomime debate and the pantomime protest was the knowledge that we have all, over sixty-one million of us, lost something. What we have lost is the idea of public debate. That is, debate that takes the public seriously. Debate for participating adults; not debate that is choreographed, or censored, as if it were for children with learning difficulties.
The pantomime that is now public debate has as its benchmark the Question Time debate on 22 October 2009. That programme made explicit what is implicit in most TV debates and on many panel discussions organised by various societies and public bodies; that people are just not ‘interested in’ or, what they really mean, are not just capable of debate.
‘Debate’ in most of its contemporary forms is nothing more than booing people who have the wrong ideas and pressurising them to adopt the correct ideas through emotional blackmail. This was the sorry truth that was made explicit last Thursday. But that also failed.
The pantomime debate also revealed, in the widespread discussion and the responses of many people, that both the BBC and the Banners are wrong. Ordinary people are sensible, thoughtful and up for a debate. The challenge is for the BBC and other institutions populated by our ‘betters’, along with their mobs of Banners, to overcome their contempt for ordinary people and engage with them in debate. If they can’t bring themselves to do this they may end up sharing the dustbin of history alongside ‘No Platform.’
Dennis Hayes is the founder of Academics For Academic Freedom (www.afaf.org.uk) and Professor of Education at the University of Derby
1. Details of the programme and the wider coverage can be found on the BBC One Programmes Website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00nft24#synopsis
2. ‘Don’t be afraid to boo,’ Daily Mail 24 October 2009: pp 4-5
3. Alex Hochuli ‘Hating Nick: a shared national experience,’ Spiked-Online, 23 October 2009: http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/site/article/7612/
4. James Chapman, ‘The BNP backlash – MPs accuse BBC of playing into Nick Griffin’s hands by stage-managing Question Time onslaught’, Daily Mail 24 October 2009: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1222586/The-BNP-backlash—MPs-accuse-BBC-playing-Nick-Griffins-hands-stage-managing-Question-Time-onslaught.html
5. Patrick Hayes ‘Would the BBC give a platform to Hitler?’ Spiked-Online, 23 October 2009:
6. Against the Grain: ‘I’d invite the BNP to a debate,’ Independent, 19 June 2008: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/higher/against-the-grain-id-invite-the-bnp-to-a-debate-849608.html
7. Dennis Hayes and Richard Reynolds ‘Time to No Platform “No Platform,”’ The Free Society, 31 October 2008: http://www.thefreesociety.org/Columnists/Dennis-Hayes/time-to-no-platform-no-platform