More on the BBC and BNP – Hain got it wrong

It was a fair cop when Peter Hain slated BBC Radio 1’s Newsbeat for its handling of the ambush on air by BNP leading activists posing as “ordinary” BNP supporters – whoever they are, although I feel more than a twinge of sympathy for the producers who fell into the trap. Yet again though, the BBC’s first line of defence has proved to be inept. Far better to have been straighforward and admit they didn’t recognise the names in a busy news programme on the day and will be better prepared next time. Hain is wrong though to bracket his criticism of Newsbeat with the decision to offer BNP leader Nick Griffin a seat on Question Time. And doubly wrong to pray in aid the BBC’s own diversity guidelines in support of his case. You may expect that this will be the one and only occasion the BNP wil be offered a chair in a debate ( as distinct from a News) programme before the election pending period. Hain asserts:

In considering whether to give the BNP this credibility the BBC should have weighed any rights of a minority against its obligations as the public service broadcaster to promote a tolerant society in the UK – and one that is free from racially motivated hatred or violence. Especially since the BBC’s equality policy commits it to promote “equal opportunities for all, irrespective of colour, race, religion or belief, ethnic or national origins, gender, marital/civil partnership status, sexuality, disability or age”. Either this is hollow rhetoric, or the BBC’s own policy compels the corporation to give more weight to a tolerant majority than to a racist minority

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But this equality policy applies to employment conditions and portrayal issues ( representing a diverse society on air among presenters, programme themes etc ). It does not apply, and must not be invoked, to curtail editorial freedom, just as Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act to promote equality does not gag Nolan contributors and others ( though there are those who would like it to apply).. My own ideal is to push our law and practice as close to the US First amendment as possible and support tests that steer interpretations of the weaker Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights in that direction. Whatever its provenance, I sympathise with this petition to the Scottish Parliament and am even uncomfortable with jailing Holocaust deniers purely for the denial. Achieving the ideal may be a tall order in these days of Islamicist rage and racist backlash but it is surely the right cause and well worth a demonstration or few.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London