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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Where are the moderate Tories condemning Zac Goldsmith’s campaign?

Conservative MPs are reluctant to criticise the London mayoral candidate’s dogwhistle rhetoric.

Very few Conservative politicians have criticised Zac Goldsmith’s campaign to be elected London mayor. And, amid repeated accusations of racial profiling, Islamophobic undertones, and patronising London’s Indian communities, there has been plenty to criticise.

Ever since describing his rival, Sadiq Khan, as having “radical politics” at the end of last year, Goldsmith’s campaign has come under fire for attempting to sound a dogwhistle to voters for whom racial politics – and divisions – are a priority.

You may feel it’s naïve of me to expect Tory MPs to join in the criticism. Presumably most Tory MPs want their party’s candidate to win the mayoralty. So it is unlikely that they would condemn his methods.

But I’d argue that, in this case, we can’t excuse dodged questions and studied silence as good clean tribalism. Granted, Conservatives only want to see their party make electoral gains. And that is understandable. But trickier to explain away is how willing all of the party’s MPs – many of whom are as moderate and “cotton-wool Tory” (in the words of one Labour adviser) as we once assumed Goldsmith was – are to ignore the campaign’s nastier side.

Why aren’t the Cameroons (or neo-Cameroons) who wish to further “detoxify” the party speaking out? There are plenty of them. There is more enthusiasm on the Tory benches for David Cameron than is generally assumed. Many of the 2015 intake are grateful to him; those in marginal seats in particular see him as the reason they won last year. And in spite of the grumbling nature of the 2010-ers, a number of them are keener than appears on Cameron. After all, plenty wouldn’t be in parliament without his A-list and open primaries (a time when the party was supposed to be opening up to candidates of different backgrounds, something Goldsmith’s rhetoric could threaten).

And we know it’s not just Labour whining about Goldsmith’s campaign. It makes Tories uncomfortable too. For example, the Conservative Group Leader at Watford Council Binita Mehta, former Conservative candidate Shazia Awan, and Tory peer and former minister Sayeeda Warsi have spoken out.

And it’s not just non-MPs who are riled by Goldsmith’s rhetoric. Behind the scenes, Conservative MPs have been muttering for weeks about feeling uncomfortable about the campaign.

“There has been a sense that this is a bad dogwhistle, and it’s a bit of a smear,” one Tory MP tells me. “I don’t think Sadiq Khan’s a bad man at all – I think his problem is, which happens to all politicians, is some of the platforms in the past and the people he shared them with, and maybe he didn’t know – I mean, the number of times David Cameron or Gordon Brown or Tony Blair were shown at some fundraising thing, or just visiting somewhere, shaking hands with somebody who turns out to be a crook; that’s the nature of mass politics.”

There is also a mixed view among London’s Tory MPs about the tone of Goldsmith’s campaign generally. Some, who were frustrated in the beginning by his “laidback, slightly disengaged” style, are simply pleased that he finally decided to play dirty with the more energetic Khan. Others saw his initial lighter touch as an asset, and lament that he is trying to emulate Boris Johnson by being outrageous – but, unlike the current London mayor, doesn’t have the personality to get away with it.

One Tory MP describes it as a “cold, Lynton Crosby calculation of the dogwhistle variety”, and reveals that, a couple of weeks ago, there was a sense among some that it was “too much” and had “gone too far and is counterproductive”.

But this sense has apparently dissipated. Since Labour’s antisemitism crisis unfolded last week, moderate Conservative MPs feel more comfortable keeping their mouths shut about Goldsmith’s campaign. This is because racism in Labour has been exposed, even if Khan is not involved. Ironic really, considering they were (rightly) so quick to condemn Ken Livingstone’s comments and call on Jeremy Corbyn and Labour MPs to speak out against such sentiments. It’s worth noting that Labour’s moderates have been significantly less reluctant than their Tory counterparts to call out such problems in their own party.

There is also the EU referendum to consider. Tory MPs see division and infighting ahead, and don’t want to war more than is necessary. One source close to a Tory MP tells me: “[Goldsmith’s campaign] is uncomfortable for all of us – it’s not even considered a Conservative campaign, it’s considered a Zac Goldsmith campaign. But [we can’t complain because] we have to concentrate on Europe.”

So it makes sense politically, in the short term, for Tory moderates to keep quiet. But I expect they know that they have shirked a moral duty to call out such nasty campaign methods. Their calls for Labour’s response to antisemitism, and David Cameron’s outrage about Jeremy Corbyn’s “friends” in Hamas and Hezbollah, are simply hollow attack lines if they can’t hold their own party to higher standards.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.