Sunday, October 12, 2008

Freedom of Speech

Well, it seems I am getting a few readers to my blog. The trick, it seems, it to pop in one or two key words (other bloggers note). My most recent post has generated a lot of traffic, and many comments. Most of the comments purport to come from UK nationals and British patriots, whose 'time has come' and who deserve free speech in order to rid Britian of its racial impurities. I summarise, of course, and in the interests of good taste and peace of mind of family members, I have removed the comments from the site - but if you want to you can read many of them here (see, I do believe in freedom of speech ...)

However, those clever people at Google analytics can tell me an interesting story. Most of the traffic was generated from a US based site called "StormFront". The banner to the site has words in a Germanic Gothic script. I am sure I am not the only one who has not missed the connection with the most famous racist organisations of the twentieth century.

Most visitors, and it seems comments, come from the forum posts which you can also read here: You will see that in the main this is not rational pollitical debate, and includes at least one death threat: "The church is fall of nonces maybe we should withdraw them of air?". Some writers also advise those commenting on my blog how to frame their comments. It is worth reading these posts, because this is what giving an equivalent platform for groups like the BNP really means.

There is one comment received so far deserves a particular response. Gary raised the question of free speech and democracy, and asks whether to deny the BNP a voice on Question Time actually goes against these principles. This point is clearly not lost on the BBC, and the internal debate in the Corporation has occasionally surfaced in public comment. Back in 2003 the BBC apparently blocked an invitation to BNP councillors to take part in Question Time. However there are clearly some voices in the BBC who feel this approach should change - an article last year by Peter Rippon of the BBC indicates some movement in the debate, and the visit to the local radio station here in Stoke-on-Trent might well indicate what could be called a 'softening' by the BBC. Ironically, I speculate, it may be the anxiety of a challenge to the BBC's policy under European Human Rights legislation that is causing some rethinking.

Anyway, to deal with Gary's point and connected issues

1. I am not suggesting an absolute ban on the BNP. My comments relate to this particular (possible) invitation.

2. To invite the leader of the BNP to appear on QT allows the party to appear like any other party - they are not.

3. The very existence of the site, the comments made on it, and the other reactions to my blog make my point in (2) very clear. In addition, there is widespread evidence of illegal activity by BNP activists including convictions for Griffin himself. The StormFront site claims that earlier invitations have been extended to the BNP but conditions have been laid upon them which they have not been prepared to accept - most likely, the BBC have been trying to avoid charges of inciting racial hatred being made against the Corporation.

4. The fact that this invitation appears to be being made for a recording in Stoke-on-Trent is particularly sensitive. Indeed, if true, the apparent secrecy surrounding the invitation and the venue is proof in itself that this is seen to be a delicate matter. It also comes just a few days before a local referendum, which - although not of particular interest to the BNP (it is about the future structure of local government and whether we have an elected mayor) - it also puts the city in the publc spotlight.

5. Respectfully, I submit that it is rather naive to suppose that if the policies and opinions of a racist party were given full exposure (especially on their terms) then they would be plainly seen for what they are. That did not happen in Weimar Germany, nor indeed much more recently in the former Yugoslavia. Such groups thrive and exploit publicity and are not open about their dealings.

6. Freedom of Speech is never an absolute right. In fact, it is not a right at all in UK law, or at least it wasn't until the incorporation in Uk law of the European Covention. "Freedom is not unlimited; it must halt before 'the tree of the knowledge of good and evil', for it is called to accept the moral law given by God." (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church 136). Racism is clearly against that moral law (ibid, paras 144, 431, 433, 557) and our responsibility is to promote racial harmony and understanding, not to encourage the opposite.

Now there are two other points which I ought briefly to add.

The first is this: there is a debate to be had about the extent to which Freedom of Speech may and may not be allowed in a democratic (ie. liberal secular) society. I allow that there may be a range of views on this. In the current climate of the 'War on Terror', there has been a restriction on many aspects of freedom of speech and expression, something I observe with some alarm. One of the difficulties of the democratic liberalism with which we are familiar with in the West is that at heart there is a profound contradiction - the statement attributed to Voltaire “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” The trouble is that it is those we are prepared to die for who are those most likely to be those who want to kill us. Fortunately for Voltaire he never actually made this statement, and he died a natural death. Some views, I would hold, are so repugnant as not to merit the privilege of free propagation. In fact, I think everyone holds this to some extent - the only debate is about where the line is drawn. We would not have this debate about the publication of paedophilic pornography, for example, and the law in the UK and elsewhere restricts support for terrorist groups - even in poetry. If racist parties take pleasure in demeaning, vilifying and threatening others in their Web sites and publications, then we have to ask to what extent this is different.

And the second point, no less important, is that racist parties thrive on real concerns which people have, and while the racists should not have the same access to freedom of speech, this should not be used as a reason for ignoring real anxieties and concerns of ordinary people. The process of education and fostering understanding of ethnically different groups is one important feature. Education and information about the contribution which migrants make to economies and cultures and challenging stereotypes and misinformation is another. But if we think that is enough we are mistaken. Many ordinary people harbour not only simple prejudice but also fear about what is unfamiliar, and have concerns over economic or social stresses in their own lives which seem to overlap with aspects of ethnic diversity. If those in authority dismiss such issues as prejudice or ignorance, then they are driving ordinary good people into the hands of the racists because they seem to provide a direct diagnosis to the problem and a simple answer. To paraphrase someone, we need to address both racism and the causes of racism.

Or, as Edmund Burke wrote, All that is required for the triumph of evil, is that good men do nothing.