Question Time BNP: Disgusted -- but by Griffin's fellow panellists

They had the opportunity to show themselves to be better. And they blew it

I am the son of an immigrant. My close family includes Jews and Muslims as well as Christians. I oppose everything the BNP stands for. And I too feel disgusted about Nick Griffin's appearance on BBC1's Question Time on Thursday night - but not because he was invited to appear on a respected, high-profile national discussion programme. No. I am angry and ashamed that his fellow panelists, three senior members of our main Westminster parties and one leading cultural figure, acted in a way that betrayed the very principles that were invoked as reasons why the BNP leader should not have been on the programme.

Griffin 's views, it is argued, are beyond the pale. It was wrong to give him the oxygen of publicity and, by his presence on Question Time, tacitly accept his party as a legitimate element in mainstream political discourse. But he was there, and given that he was, it should have been ridiculously easy to demonstrate how repulsive his party is.

It should have been enough to confront him with past comments that have been recorded in a manner that makes them undeniable. It should have been enough to examine his party's stated policies, and its ludicrous elevation of an indigenous ethnicity in an island that has assimilated waves of immigrants for centuries. (They, after all, include such successful invaders, like the Normans and the Dutch of William of Orange, that history barely considers them to have been belligerents, as well as those actually invited to leave Britain's former colonies to take up jobs this country needed and who, along with their descendants, have contributed so much to our society and economy; not to mention, of course, our own royal family - whose surname would still be Saxe-Coburg-Gotha had anti-German sentiment in the First World War not made the change to Windsor seem prudent. "Royals go home" doesn't sound like much of a vote-winner.)

It should have been laughably straightforward for the panelists to debate with and destroy Griffin 's arguments. Instead, inflated by their outrage, the other speakers repeatedly interrupted, spoke over and cut short the BNP leader. They could have given him all the rope he needed to hang himself. By treating him as a pariah not even granted the liberty of finishing many of his sentences, never mind a particular proposition he was beginning to elaborate, they showed precisely the disregard for others and their views that they condemn in Griffin 's party.

Nearly one million people voted for the BNP in the Euro-elections. Whatever one thinks of their party's platform, they have a right to be heard. Some parties cannot be more "legal" than others. That is a consequence of living in a democracy, and it is part of cherishing the right to free speech. You persuade such people that they are wrong by discussion of what they say; and that means exactly what they say, not what it can be distorted into sounding like (the BNP's appropriation of Churchill was thus a weak example for its opponents to concentrate on, because so many of his statements and beliefs would be seen as racist and objectionable by the standards of our time).

In debate you extend every courtesy to the BNP that they might possibly curtail if they were in power. You merely rest on the force of your argument. And you do all this because you are confident in the superiority of your position, and that morality and good sense are all that is needed to show how odious Griffin's band of fascists actually are, however slick and more media-savvy they may seem compared to their predecessors.

On Question Time, however, we saw four men and women who occupy offices that convey the appearance or prospect of weighty national power and influence. And how did they show themselves to be better than this man, this outcast unfit to take part in our civilised political discourse? By using the bullying tactics so often deplored in those of Griffin 's ilk. By shouting him down. By indulging their indignation - never mind that in the process we lost the opportunity of hearing him condemn himself in his own words

Shame on them, I say. If BNP support increases as a result of Griffin 's appearance, they should reflect on the fact that it was they, not the BBC, that disgraced themselves on Thursday night.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Getty
Show Hide image

A father’s murderous rage, the first victims of mass killers and Trump’s phantom campaign

From the family courts to the US election campaigns.

On 21 June, Ben Butler was found guilty of murdering his six-year-old daughter, Ellie. She had head injuries that looked like she’d been in a car crash, according to the pathologist, possibly the result of being thrown against a wall. Her mother, Jennie Gray, 36, was found guilty of perverting the course of justice, placing a fake 999 call after the girl was already dead.

When the trial first started, I clicked on a link and saw a picture of Ben and Ellie. My heart started pounding. I recognised them: as a baby, Ellie had been taken away from Butler and Gray (who were separated) after social services suggested he had been shaking her. He had been convicted of abuse but the conviction was overturned on appeal. So then he wanted his daughter back.

That’s when I spoke to him. He had approached the Daily Mail, where I then worked, to tell his story: a father unjustly separated from his beloved child by uncaring bureaucracy. I sent a writer to interview him and he gave her the full works, painting himself as a father victimised by a court system that despises men and casually breaks up families on the say-so of faceless council apparatchiks.

The Mail didn’t run the story; I suspect that Butler and Gray, being separated, didn’t seem sufficiently sympathetic. I had to tell him. He raged down the phone at me with a vigour I can remember half a decade later. Yet here’s the rub. I went away thinking: “Well, I’d be pretty angry if I was falsely ­accused and my child was taken away from me.” How can you distinguish the legitimate anger of a man who suffered a miscarriage of justice from the hair-trigger rage of a violent, controlling abuser?

In 2012, a family court judge believed in the first version of Ben Butler. Eleven months after her father regained custody of her, Ellie Butler was dead.

 

Red flags

Social workers and judges will never get it right 100 per cent of the time, but there does seem to be one “red flag” that was downplayed in Ben Butler’s history. In 2005, he pleaded guilty to assaulting his ex-girlfriend Hannah Hillman after throttling her outside a nightclub. He also accepted a caution for beating her up outside a pub in Croydon. (He had other convictions for violence.) The family judge knew this.

Butler also battered Jennie Gray. As an accessory to his crime, she will attract little sympathy – her parents disowned her after Ellie’s death – and it is hard to see how any mother could choose a violent brute over her own child. However, even if we cannot excuse her behaviour, we need to understand why she didn’t leave: what “coercive control” means in practice. We also need to fight the perception that domestic violence is somehow different from “real” violence. It’s not; it’s just easier to get away with.

 

Shooter stats

On the same theme, it was no surprise to learn that the Orlando gunman who killed 49 people at a gay club had beaten up his ex-wife. Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group, looked at FBI data on mass killings and found that 16 per cent of attackers had previously been charged with domestic violence, and 57 per cent of the killings included a family member. The Sandy Hook gunman’s first victim was his mother.

 

Paper candidate

Does Donald Trump’s presidential campaign exist if he is not on television saying something appalling about minorities? On 20 June, his campaign manager Corey Lew­andowski quit (or was pushed out). The news was broken to the media by Trump’s 27-year-old chief press officer, Hope Hicks. She was talent-spotted by The Donald after working for his daughter Ivanka, and had never even volunteered on a campaign before, never mind orchestrated national media coverage for a presidential candidate.

At least there aren’t that many staffers for her to keep in line. The online magazine Slate’s Jamelle Bouie reported that Trump currently has 30 staffers nationwide. Three-zero. By contrast, Bouie writes, “Team Clinton has hired 50 people in Ohio alone.” Trump has also spent a big fat zero on advertising in swing states – though he would argue his appearances on 24-hour news channels and Twitter are all the advertising he needs. And he has only $1.3m in his campaign war chest (Clinton has $42.5m).

It feels as though Trump’s big orange visage is the facial equivalent of a Potemkin village: there’s nothing behind the façade.

 

Divided Johnsons

Oh, to be a fly on the wall at the Johnson family Christmas celebrations. As Boris made much of his late conversion to Leave, the rest of the clan – his sister Rachel, father Stanley and brothers, Leo and Jo – all declared for Remain. Truly, another great British institution torn apart by the referendum.

 

Grrr-eat revelations

The highlight of my week has been a friend’s Facebook thread where she asked everyone to share a surprising true fact about themselves. They were universally amazing, from suffering a cardiac arrest during a job interview to being bitten by a tiger. I highly recommend repeating the experience with your own friends. Who knows what you’ll find out? (PS: If it’s juicy, let me know.)

Peter Wilby is away

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain