Bonnie Greer versus the BNP

Has the BBC made a(nother) mistake?

The BBC has confirmed that the black playwright Bonnie Greer will be a panellist on its Question Time programme this month featuring the BNP leader Nick Griffin. She joins a middle-aged, middle-class, white, male trio from the three main parties: Jack Straw (Labour), Chris Huhne (Liberal Democrat) and a Conservative politician whose name has not yet been confirmed, though rumour has it that this will be Michael Gove.

But is Greer -- feisty, articulate and intelligent as she may be -- the right "person of colour" to take on Griffin? Remember, she is an American who migrated to this country in 1986 and only became a British citizen in 1997. In the eyes of the BNP leader and his odious ilk, she is a foreigner, an immigrant, alien to "indigenous" British culture, tradition and values. Griffin will probably try to dismiss her views on race as those formed from a particular American experience (slavery, civil rights, melting pot, Obama, etc). Much better, I believe, to have had Liberty's doughty director, the British-born Asian lawyer and QT regular Shami Chakrabarti, who was, I believe, also in the running. Or any of the various ethnic-minority politicians I suggested in an earlier post -- David Lammy, Sadiq Khan, Sayeeda Warsi, or even Respect's Muslim vice-chair, Salma Yaqoob. (I note that the principal victims of Griffin's hatred and ire -- Muslims -- will be left unrepresented on the QT panel. One can only hope and pray that the audience will compensate.)

So will Greer's Chicago background count against her? It's important to remember that the Radio 1/BNP story -- given legs again over the weekend by the Mail on Sunday (which hilariously referred to a "Mail on Sunday investigation" that supposedly uncovered the identities of the two BNP activists, Mark Collett and Joey Smith, even though they had been unmasked by anti-fascist campaigners several days earlier) -- revolved around the ridiculously inaccurate comments made about the footballer Ashley Cole "coming to this country" from abroad. Cole, of course, was born in London. Greer will have no such defence against the BNP's crude but superficially effective attacks.

Has the BBC not thought this through?

Writing in yesterday's Guardian, Peter Hain condemned the "corporation's shaky handling of reporting the BNP". The Welsh Secretary, who refuses to share a platform with the BNP, including Question Time, described the BBC as "clueless" and homed in on another big problem with the Radio 1 interview:

If the content were not distasteful enough -- descriptions of the London-born England footballer Ashley Cole as "not ethnically British" and "coming to this country" passed without proper challenge -- even more worrying is the revelation that these members, still introduced simply as Joey and Mark on the BBC website, are key members of the BNP hierarchy. One, Mark Collett, is the BNP's director of publicity. Would the BBC allow any other party's spin doctors to appear anonymously? The interview was in clear breach of basic journalistic practice, and of official BBC and National Union of Journalist guidelines.

The corporation has yet to explain the reason for granting the duo anonymity. Ric Bailey, the BBC's chief political adviser, failed to offer an adequate defence in his debate with me on Radio 4's Media Show last week -- perhaps because it is indeed indefensible. As Anindya Bhattachayya, a spokesman for Unite Against Fascism, has pointed out:

Not only did the BBC not challenge him on that, they colluded in covering up who he was. They said "Mark, 28", when they knew full well who he was. It's like doing an interview with Labour supporters "Gordon and Harriet".

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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