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  1. Election 2024
13 October 2009

Bonnie Greer versus the BNP

Has the BBC made a(nother) mistake?

By Mehdi Hasan

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?

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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”.

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