There is a myth that people in British media sometimes tell themselves and like most myths, it takes a marr of truth, and weaves it into a neat narrative in which good guys win and the bad guys are vanquished forever. That myth is rooted in the Autumn of 2009, a few months before a general election, in which the then-leader of the British National Party, Nick Griffin, was invited onto BBC Question Time, with the sole purpose of being humiliated, on national television, by comparably liberal panellists, chastising him on his party’s proposals to forcibly repatriate non-UK citizens, close the UK’s borders and questioning the legitimacy of the Holocaust.
Much less than exposing or humiliating them, the only guarantee of platforming the far-right is furthering their influence.
British media personalities like to use this event to assert not just their relevance, but their necessity. The narrative goes like this: Without Question Time bravely inviting Griffin on their program, and shining a light on his distasteful, bigoted views, his party would have seen massive success in the general election. And worse still, his views would have thrived underground –away from the scrutiny of partisan journalists exposing truth to power. Indeed, as the writer Alan Grant wrote on HuffPost in 2016: “The downfall of the British Nationalists proves that the best cure for abhorrent views is not darkness, via bans and censorship, but a spotlight – the heat of which causes them burn...Had Griffin not received this treatment, the public might not have had the BNPs true nature exposed to them and we might still be talking about its upcoming, seemingly inevitable, electoral success.”
The proximity to power of figures like Steve Bannon is enough for journalists to play ball with them.
Fast forward a decade to the BBC’s Jon Sopel, one of the country’s leading journalists, sitting at a makeshift, carefully choreographed border wall, interviewing Steve Bannon on the broadcaster’s flagship Today programme. The same Steve Bannon who was formerly head of Brietbart, a far-right website that Bannon himself wished to make “the home of the alt-right”, the group for whom white nationalism is core to their ideology.
Bannon was the architect of Donald Trump’s presidential victory, the same man whose core policies included the Muslim ban, the border wall, and increasing border detentions and deportations. The same Bannon who, since leaving the White House, has now set himself a new mission – to repeat the Trump movement across Europe, by providing help and support to far-right parties with similarly violent approaches and philosophies intended to “save” Western civilisation. All of which is to say that, in spite of Bannon’s political philosophies being very obvious from the outset, and him clearly stating that achieving his vision will necessitate violence, the BBC’s biggest radio programme still insists on treating him as a rogue intellectual, a political mastermind and one whose views, rather than being interrogated and challenged thoroughly, are instead simply broadcast with next to no resistance.
Granted, the BBC aren’t the only organisation to be accused of giving Bannon an easy ride. Other media organisations including CNN and The New York Times have received similar criticism, and In 2018, The Economist was heavily criticised after inviting him to their Open Futures conference. The magazine’s editor, Zanny Minton Beddoes, who responded by defending the invitation and echoing the Question Time myth, said: “This will expose bigotry and prejudice, just as it will reaffirm and refresh liberalism”. Yet, when the debate finally happened, there was little, if any, evidence that Beddoes’ light questioning (“do you really think that?”) retorts had changed public perceptions of Bannon. If anything, such a platform, at an event where tickets were sold at nearly £100 each, gave Bannon the air of a great thinker of our time. He was presented as a bookish eccentric simply challenging liberal, and neoliberal orthodoxies, rather than someone with considerable power, who has used his privilege to encourage policies and construct an environment that has demonstrably impeded on the lives of immigrants, refugees and people of colour. To that end, even taking on Bannon using the logic used against Nick Griffin makes little sense. Bannon is allowed to straddle between multiple roles, and morph his personality depending on the environment he’s in – a technique that easily deflects the low-level scrutiny so often employed by journalists whose job it is to interrogate those given such privileges.
There’s no doubt that journalists, and media organisations, face new challenges in how they report on the resurgent right. At the same time, figures like Bannon, and the populists winning elections under his watch, are more than aware that they no longer need to appear respectable on mainstream news networks to be taken seriously. Their proximity to power is enough for journalists to play ball with them.
Liberal media outlets often peddle the view that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”. But much less than exposing or humiliating them, the only guarantee of platforming the far-right is furthering their influence.
Hussein Kesvani is a freelance journalist