I t’s nearly a decade since BNP leader Nick Griffin was invited to appear on Question Time, arguably one of the BBC’s most irresponsible decisions. There’s an often repeated, but flawed suggestion that the presence of the British National party on the corporation’s flagship current affairs show back in 2009 led to the party’s downfall. I get it – it’s reassuring to think that when scrutinised, hateful prejudice can be defeated with the power of rational words.
Except a quick look at the BNP’s polling history suggests the opposite: in the 2005 general election the BNP had pulled in 192,850 votes across the UK. By 2010, that figure was 514,819. According to a YouGov opinion poll conducted in the hours after Griffin appeared on the programme, voter support for the far-right party had increased from 2 to 3%. The BNP itself reported 3,000 new members joined its ranks that night.
“The more important long-term effect was that Griffin’s appearance broke the taboo on giving far-right politicians and commentators a platform,” explains Daniel Trilling, author of Bloody Nasty People. “And it helped normalise views that have since been expressed by others to be regarded as more respectable.”
It only takes a quick look around the British media today to see this in action: Nigel Farage hosts an LBC radio show in which he chats chummily to Steve Bannon; Breitbart editor Raheem Kassam is invited on to the BBC unopposed to defend Tommy Robinson’s Islamophobia and racial hate. Ukip spokespeople continue to appear on our television screens to discuss Brexit, despite the fact that the party has now turned its attention to anti-Muslim policies.
Twitter’s decision this week not to kick Infowars conspiracy theorist Alex Jones from its site is another example of a media platform refusing to take responsibility for the hatred it hosts. The lazy explanation, “we strongly believe Twitter should not be the arbiter of truth” displays a wilful misunderstanding of the responsibilities of publishers. It’s as meaningless as TV shows saying they’ll host racists in the interests of “balance” and “fair debate”.
It’s time we accept that there’s no such thing as an impartial media, and that giving a platform to racists legitimises their ideas and language. When it comes to creating space for the far right, we can draw a red line.
That’s why it’s no affront to liberty if the likes of Apple, YouTube, Facebook and Spotify finally take a stand and kick Infowars off their platforms – even if there could have been greater transparency about the decision-making process. This isn’t a matter of private companies silencing voices or engaging in censorship, but deciding not to profit from hate.
Campaigns led by the public are one way to demand action from publishers and platforms. The Sleeping Giants account brought about a steep decline in advertising revenues on Bannon’s far-right Breitbart website after naming and shaming the companies keeping the site afloat. After Sky News Australia interviewed a far-right extremist, a handful of companies pulled ads from the channel this week, spurred on by public pressure: American Express, Huggies and Specsavers among them.
But this approach is a stopgap: what’s needed is a radical change in tactics from the media in all its forms. It’s no good for companies with such power to shirk responsibility for the hatred they are spreading. It’s not good enough to say, as Twitter has, that journalists should just fact-check conspiracy theories on the platform’s behalf. If Infowars, which has claimed the Sandy Hook shooting was faked, accused Hillary Clinton of using “illegal” migrants to rig the US election and pushed the racist Obama birther conspiracy, doesn’t breach Twitter’s guidelines, then the rules need fixing, they aren’t a codified constitution.
Giving a platform to racists doesn’t just legitimise and amplify their voices; it has serious consequences offline too. A 2018 study by the University of Warwick is uncompromising: “Our findings suggest that social media has not only become a fertile soil for the spread of hateful ideas but also motivates real-life action.” One only need look to Infowars’ founder Jones’s part in spreading the Pizzagate conspiracy theory: a case in which fake news stories claiming that Hillary Clinton oversaw a child abuse ring at a Washington DC restaurant led to an incident with a gunman. It wasn’t long ago that Labour MP Jo Cox was brutally murdered. Islamophobic incidents are at an all time high.
The fight against bigotry and fascism won’t be won just by booting the likes of Jones off Twitter, or refusing to give Islamophobes airtime. There needs to be political education and work in local communities. We’ll need to stand alongside our neighbours when racists march dangerously through our city streets. But media, both traditional and social, has a part to play too.
And if it sounds as though what I’m advocating is an affront to free speech: the far-right have no more of a “right” to appear on our screens than my grandma, a spider or a member of Isis. We can’t have rational debates with people who think others of certain religions, races, sexualities or genders should be denied their right to exist in safety. It’s no affront to civil liberties that you’ve not got your own TV show, and having a Twitter account isn’t a human right.
• Michael Segalov is the news editor at Huck magazine and a freelance journalist