Parity at last

Observations on BNP

The British National Party has always insisted that it is no different from any other political party, and now its dream has come true - though not in the way it would have wished. Two BNP members who stood in last year's general election, Christopher and Barry Roberts, face a legal bill of at least £25,000 after losing a libel case against the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight.

The magazine carried a story which, the brothers said, accused them of threatening to kneecap, torture and kill fellow party members and their families. The story appeared in a column by Searchlight's publisher, Gerry Gable, who also reported allegations, first made in the BNP paper British Nationalist, that the brothers might be subject to police investigation and that Chris Roberts had taken money from a collection and would not return it until threatened with the police. The brothers denied all the allegations.

Searchlight entered a qualified privilege defence, saying it had a duty in the public interest to report allegations and cross-allegations being made by BNP factions. While admitting he was hardly neutral, Gable argued that he had viewed the dispute as an outsider and had made it clear he was not in a position to take sides or comment on the veracity of the claims.

At the high court on 12 May, Mr Justice Eady agreed. The court did not need to consider the truth of the allegations, he said, and the BNP was subject to the same scrutiny as other political parties. "The defendants' argument is based upon the proposition that the public is entitled to know what is going on within any political party which presents itself regularly, through its candidates, for consideration by the electorate," the judge said. "The same argument would hold good, presumably, for any continuing feud or controversy within the Conservative or Labour party."

The brothers were ordered to pay Searchlight's costs, with £25,000 to be paid within 28 days and the rest, possibly up to £50,000, to follow.

Gable said it was a shame other organisations had not stood up to the BNP: "Barry Roberts had already threatened to sue the BBC, the Express and the Mirror, but they all settled out of court. Having got money from big corporations, he came for us, no doubt expecting little old Searchlight to roll over, but we're made of sterner stuff."

This article first appeared in the 22 May 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Heroes of our time - the top 50