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Hastings & St. Leonards on-line community newspaper

We ask: why did the BBC make this ignorant and offensive documentary?

We sent the following email on Tuesday 12 January to the BBC’s Inside Out programme that publicised the BNP’s Hastings candidate:

Many people in Hastings are furious with the BBC for giving a lengthy hearing to BNP Prospective Parliamentary Candidate Nick Prince (Inside Out, Mon Jan 11), and for portraying the town as a place of racial tension and easy pickings for this fascist party.

Is it that you meant well but don’t know that showing up the BNP as stupid, racist, dishonest, ignorant and irrational will simply help them to attract like-minded (stupid, racist, dishonest, ignorant and irrational) people to them.

This was nothing short of a 20-minute donation to the BNP’s promotions budget.

Yes, it was laughable that Prince complained of a Halal grocer just opposite Queen Victoria’s bathing hut. But his potential voters probably thought he was referring to the late Queen Mother if not HM herself.

If this was an attempt to get the BNP to “show themselves up” it went wrong in a number of ways, not least in that you quite thoughtlessly used both the camera and the commentary to validate them.

First, to match camera shots to the theme, the kebab takeaway and two Turkish grocers’ shops on one street corner had to be photographed several times from different angles to make enough footage to illustrate (i.e. validate) Prince’s view that St Leonards was now an “Islamic Republic”. Another little gift was letting the camera linger over a pile of their newspapers, clearly showing the headline “BNP is now mainstream”.

Then there’s the flattering language. The purpose of the film was said to be to “find out more” about this “controversial” (in TV-speak, exciting) party’s “recent success” in this town that was “the bedrock (how solid is that?) of the BNP in the South East”; and a 10% share of the vote in recent local elections was not a very small minority but “a historic moment”.

Nick Prince himself was built up as an important personage we should all take note of, and neither in your exchanges with him nor in the voice-over was any contrary point of view, or point of fact, expressed other than to ask whether he wasn’t perhaps a little bit racist. Or maybe controversial. No, actually “busy and controversial” were the exact words.

The fact is that you can’t expect to give even a junior fascist some rope and hope he’ll hang himself: you have to do it for him. And for that, you need a little bit of preparation, research and thought.

No-one, it seemed, had researched either Hastings or the BNP. Did anyone contact Searchlight (Tel 020 7681 8660) for hard facts the BNP would rather keep quiet about? Did you bother to ask Hastings Police for figures for race crimes or incidents and compare them with a national average?

And if you did intend a demolition job, you need a crew of people who know what they’re doing, not cub reporters from local TV, better suited to the first half of the programme: reporting traffic stuck in snow.

The fact is that the appearance of Nick Griffin on Question Time seems to have given the green light to the BBC to treat the BNP as a subject as normal (or “mainstream”) as a weather report, only maybe less considered.

Within 24 hours of this programme 343 local people had signed up to demand a public apology to Hastings from the BBC. I think they are right. But I’d also like to know a) what exactly is the BBC’s policy now regarding giving the BNP a platform, and b) whether Hastings can have 20 minutes to respond.

Rachel Lever Editor, Hastings Online Times

We, and several other objectors, received this response from Linda Bell, Series Editor for Inside Out South East:

The BNP’s electoral success remains an ongoing story across the country, especially as we now enter an election year. The BBC is obliged to treat all political parties registered with the electoral commission and operating within the law with due impartiality. As with any political party we work to challenge the BNP and their policies and ensure an appropriate level of scrutiny.

We could not agree that the BNP had either been challenged or scrutinised in the programme, but also wanted to know what “due impartiality” means, so we asked a few more questions and got some quite interesting replies:

Does “due impartiality” mean allocating air-time in proportion to their votes?

No, due impartiality does not mean that. It means approaching each subject in an unbiased way, it’s nothing to do with timing. Parties get coverage according to electoral support but it’s not a mathematical calculation.

Does every party opening a new branch get a programme about it?

No, otherwise there would be whole items about events of no particular significance. We chose to cover the BNP because of their wider significance as demonstrated by the levels of support in elections.

Can you please supply me with the dates and running times you have devoted to the other prospective parliamentary candidates?

Due impartiality requires that we are fair to all properly constituted legal parties. As mentioned above, it doesn’t mean a mathematical balance of coverage so we don’t time the contributions of candidates on our output. We ensure that our coverage is fair and impartial. So, we don’t have the information you are asking for, but I hope I have explained why.

These replies really underlined our initial point that the BBC has “green-lighted” routine coverage of the BNP. We responded:

From what you are saying, there was no legal requirement for that particular programme to have been made, and it has clearly offended very large numbers of people. … The law of impartiality would maybe require you to include the name of a BNP candidate in a list or roundup of all candidates in an election, but beyond that, it cannot compel you to decide what stories to cover in a general interest programme, nor whether it would be a light “story” or a heavy inquest, nor what commentary or visuals to include.

The inclusion of BNP leader Griffin on Question Time was very different because it is a clearcut weekly political programme in which all other parties have been regularly represented and there could have been a legal challenge.

Many believe the BBC was still wrong on Question Time and should have let the BNP sue them: this might have established that because of the culture of racial hatred and verbal and physical violence around the BNP, and the fact that it has a (not very well) hidden agenda and history that are far more extreme than its careful “letter of the law” re-branding, it had not earned “due impartiality” and the BBC would be right not to include it.

A court case on its own would have been useful to bring out a lot of evidence, and could have damaged the BNP both financially and politically. And it might have led to some more rigorous definitions of what the present law means and how it should be put into practice.

We also sent the following complaint to the BBC:

This programme was poorly researched (both about the BNP and Hastings) and weak, used words and phrases that flattered and aggrandised the BNP (e.g. a 10% poll result was “a historic moment” and Hastings “the bedrock of the BNP in the South East”), and mis-used film material to back up the subject’s racial comments.

The BNP’s Nick Prince continually had the last word, so any questions merely served as cues to let him express his “sadness” at how Muslim immigrants had supposedly ruined the town.

I believe this sort of sloppiness arises from an attitude that because the BBC is legally obliged to cover the BNP, this means it has become a “normal” story not requiring special expertise or safeguards. I would like to suggest two things:

1. You say you are covering the BNP under legal duress, but you seem to be doing it with gusto. Why not stick to the minimum that would prevent litigation?

2. A specialist central unit to research, advise and brief reporters and to oversee post-production could help to make such programmes more rigorous, with a store of experience that would prevent the BNP from running rings around regional reporters who usually only need to be pleasant and chatty.

And finally we emailed our MP Michael Foster to ask for his help to challenge the widespread publicity that the BBC is giving the BNP in the name of keeping within the law, but some weeks later have received no reply.

Meanwhile:

1. The same BBC TV Inside Out programme’s Midlands unit has also featured the BNP recently. And Radio 1’s Newsbeat has just been castigated by thePress Gazettefor a weak interview with the BNP. The anti-fascist organisation Searchlight rather wearily told us that “similar programmes are cropping up all over the place”.

2. The culture of violence was in the news again, when an ex- BNP member with a bedroom stacked with guns, bombs, knives and crossbows, and notebooks packed with race hate was sent down for 11 years; and The Guardian used the Freedom of Information Act to ferret out police figures showing a rise in local racist violence following every electoral advance of the BNP.

3. With an election in just three months, it’s feared that the BNP might gain its first Westminster MPs and get control of some local authorities. It’s a very frightening prospect, and might be the most regrettable side effect of the MPs’ expenses scandal as the BNP scoop up the pickings from the dissection of conventional parties and politicians. Money and time will be needed in plenty to counter them and expose their true agenda, history and connections. And we must keep up the pressure on the BBC to come off the fence and deny these thugs the free publicity and validation that gives them a huge leg-up.

INFO AND RESOURCES:

Searchlight‘s Hope Not Hate campaign: http://action.hopenothate.org.uk/neveragain
Hastings United Against Fascism: if you signed up for the Facebook group Hastings Wants An Apology From The BBC, why not join HUAF too? hastingsuaf@yahoo.co.uk
UAF National Conference in London, 13 Feb

Posted 21:42 Saturday, Jan 16, 2010 In: Campaigns

Also in: Campaigns

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