Friday, July 16, 2004

Beneath the veneer

Last night's BBC1 documentary 'The Secret Agent', in which undercover reporter Jason Gwynne infiltrated the BNP armed with recording equipment, portrayed an organisation intent upon inciting racial violence and hatred from grassroots level right up to the very top.

"So what?", some are likely to retort. "Tell us something we don't know."

Well, the sad fact of the matter is that this truth is not universally recognised, and that, given that the BNP quadrupled its share of the vote in the European elections, their attempt to present a cleaned-up image appears to be working. A programme in which BNP councillors, candidates and activists appear without the make-up of respectability and give themselves away couldn't have been more timely.

Viewers were confronted with footage of council candidate Dave Midgley telling of how he squirted dog shit through the letterbox of an Indian takeaway, councillor Stewart Williams claiming, "all I want to do is shoot Pakis" and activist Steven Barkham boasting of his assault on an Asian man during the Bradford riots.

More disturbing than these thuggish overgrown children, however, are those educated and articulate individuals whose impassioned and hate-filled speeches incite and encourage the likes of Barkham to behave the way they do: BNP founder John Tyndall, a former Nazi who denounced Michael Howard as the son of Romanian Jews; Leeds University graduate Mark Collett, a Nazi sympathiser and "rising star" within the party; and chairman Nick Griffin himself.

The programme repeatedly underlined the way in which the BNP makes political capital out of fears which it has artificially stoked up (aided and abetted, of course, by some elements of the mainstream media - the characteristic Daily Mail metaphor of immigration being a threatening "flood" cropped up in a number of speeches), and the inconsistencies and ironies of the BNP's position were subtly made apparent time and again, perhaps most sharply when Front National leader Jean Marie Le Pen was shown addressing guests at a BNP dinner in French shortly after councillor and Cambridge graduate Dr James Lewthwaite had argued that all those in England should be made to speak English or face expulsion.

A vitally important if not earth-shatteringly revelatory programme.

Later in the evening, by allowing Griffin an interview on 'Newsnight', the BBC offered the BNP the right to reply. Thankfully, though Paxman might have effected an even more devastating demolition, anchorman Gavin Esler was mercilessly aggressive in his questioning and Griffin came across as hopelessly incoherent and full of pathetic conspiracy theories. Whilst apologising for the actions of Barkham, Midgley and Williams, he went on to reiterate the claims made during one of his recorded speeches that the Islamic faith has expanded due in large part to rape. Revealingly, not only did he claim that those two figureheads of respectable racism and bigotry, the Mail's Peter Hitchens and the Sun's Richard Littlejohn, share his views, but he also characteristically refused to accept the label "racist".

What Griffin said did, however, underline a fundamental loophole in existing law - as things stand, it is not illegal to discriminate against another person or group on religious grounds, and so he is able to talk of "Islamification" in pejorative terms and to repeatedly attack the Muslim faith safe in the knowledge that he cannot be prosecuted. As this debate suggests, the issue of whether the law should be extended is far from clear-cut. From a personal point of view, of course publicly spouting this sort of invective should be an offence punishable by imprisonment, but as an atheist who finds right-wing Christian bible-thumping (particularly the American strain) offensive in itself, I'm not sure whether I'd welcome the removal of my right to criticise.

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