Friday, October 30, 2009

Griffin Shouldn't Have Been on Question Time

“Shame. On. You. BBC!”

“Nazi. Scum! Off. Our. Streets!”

Facing a wall of policemen, anti-fascists and anti-racists screamed at the top of their lungs.

The outrage over the decision to invite the racist British National Party (BNP) leader Nick Griffin onto a respected show like ‘Question Time’ had reached the BBC’s doorstep in Wood Lane, London. Inside, Griffin shared a panel for the first time with members of mainstream parties taking questions from a studio audience. He was hounded but never cornered. Although that doesn’t really matter because a man with views as odious as his should never have been on Question Time (QT) in the first place. The BBC was wrong to invite him.

A quick glance at some of the BNP’s claims to fame quickly reveals its racist agenda. It was only a few weeks ago that the party was forced by the court to change its constitution which earlier allowed only white people to become members. Griffin himself was convicted in 1998 for inciting racial hatred. His anti-Semitic past goes back a long way since he is understood to have read Mein Kampf at 13 and later said it had “some really useful ideas.”

Where this starts to become quite sinister is that he has been trying to give the BNP a veneer of respectability by talking about his extremist agenda in code or when it suits him, not at all. He has said, “This is a life-and-death struggle for white survival, not a fancy-dress party. Less banner waving and more guile wouldn’t go amiss.”

A more undeserving candidate for Question Time’s panel is hard to find.

The BBC was wrong for one principal reason. The format of Question Time legitimizes Nick Griffin. Having worked in television I know that the only way to get close to nailing down a double-speaking politician is to interview him or her individually and at length. Sort of like Karan Thapar’s demolition of Arjun Singh or Katie Couric’s demolition of Sarah Palin. However, with four other panelists, a moderator and an audience pulling the “discussion” this way and that, Griffin wriggled out just fine and for a while even managed to turn the tables on his fellow panelists who yammered on about failed immigration policies.

By placing him on a panel, he received the status of an “equal” or worse, won sympathy, going by the complaints the BBC received about unfair treatment towards Griffin. As if on cue, Griffin has complained that he was confronted by a “lynch mob” in London (where QT was shot) which according to him is “no longer a British city.”

After angry demands that the invitation to Griffin be withdrawn, the BBC dug in further saying censorship was the job of the government and not the BBC. I agree. And in fact, its not censorship that I want but a display of better editorial judgment. The BNP should not be removed from the airwaves. When their party wins an election or incites violence or does anything “newsworthy” then they must be covered. Nick Griffin must be interviewed, but just not on shows like Question Time that throw a cloak of respectability around the BNP.

The chief counter-argument in this debate is that not inviting Griffin violates his freedom of speech. But this is a slightly uni-dimensional way of looking at it because this line of reasoning ignores the fact that words can be used as codes - understood by the right audience, while staying within the law or simply as lies that suppress a darker agenda.

Griffin has said as much while sharing a platform with a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, whom he ridiculously called “non-violent.” Standing before a crowd of white nationalists, Griffin told them it was all about using “saleable words” such as “democracy”, “freedom” and “identity”. “Nobody can criticize them. Nobody can come at you and attack you for those ideas. Perhaps one day, by being rather more subtle, we’ve got ourselves in a position where we control the British broadcasting media, then perhaps one day the British people might change their mind and say yes, every last one must go (non-white immigrants).”

Words can be sweet and sinister. Such tactics allow the BNP to become more and more acceptable, while completely deflecting attention away from its real thuggish agenda. It is exactly that kind of creeping extremism that any society needs to guard against.

This brings me back to my argument. If we have genuinely committed to the dustbin of history the notions of racial purity and white supremacy, what we need today is not censorship but a much more rigorous cross-examination of the return of such destructive politics The BBC, which otherwise does this so well and which has truly earned the trust of its audiences, I regret to say, betrayed them this time.

This piece was published in The Indian Express on 30th October 2009.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Protests Outside BBC Against Invitation to Far-right Party

A poster outside the BBC Television Studios in Wood Lane in London.

A coalition of organisations under the umbrella of 'Unite Against Fascism' protested outside the BBC Television Centre in Wood Lane in London. Hundreds of people shouted slogans like "Shame On You BBC" and "Nazi Scum Off Our Streets" to protest against the BBC's decision to invite far-right British National Party leader Nick Griffin onto the show 'Question Time'. This is a highly respected show and anti-fascists argue that the BBC acted irresponsibly by allowing a racist like Griffin on because it gives him the legitimacy he craves. The BBC has said that in the interests of fairness and impartiality and by virtue of his winning two seats in the European Parliamentary elections earlier this year, they could invite Griffin and subject him to the same scrutiny that all political parties are put through.

A wall of policemen blocked the protesters from behind and from the front.

Police blocking one of the main entrances to the BBC Television Centre. Nick Griffin had to go in through another entrance.

Random dude who had climbed onto the traffic lights. He seemed fairly uninterested in the protest itself. He even had a smoke up there.

People of all ages and several different ethnicities and backgrounds came for the protest.

Shakila Mann from the Southall Black Sisters, an NGO working for the rights of Black and Asian women said, "The BBC can make a choice. They have a free will as a broadcaster. They won't show any programs that are pro-Palestinian and get a lot of pressure from the Zionist lobby - for example not to show fund-raising for the Palestinians which happened recently and they made a choice not to run that fund-raising campaign. Why is it that they can make a choice there but can't make a choice on this?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Protests Against the BBC for Inviting Nick Griffin

BBC’s decision to invite the British National Party’s (BNP) Nick Griffin onto its programme ‘Question Time’ has rightfully invited a storm of protests by anti-fascists. The BNP is a racist political party which until a few days ago had a constitution that did not allow Blacks and Asians to become members of its organisation. The BBC has had to defend its decision vigorously, saying it is not for them but the government to censor groups like the BNP. Their justification for inviting him is that editorial impartiality demands it and that if more than a million people had voted for the BNP in the European elections, practical reality as well.

It has also been framed as a debate between those who oppose free speech and those who uphold it.

All of this is rejected by the coalition of ‘Unite Against Fascism’. At a protest meeting last night at the Conway Hall in Holborn (picture above), the debate was framed quite differently. Does freedom of speech really apply in a case when a party is committed to suppressing the rights and freedoms of an ethnic minority? So what if the BNP won a certain percentage of the vote in the European Parliamentary elections, doesn’t their racist ideology remain wrong regardless of whether 6% or 60% voted for it? Isn’t the BBC legitimizing a well-known fascist who incidentally has also learnt how to adapt his message depending on the audience he is speaking to?

I heard an interview Nick Griffin did with Sky News and its obvious that the man has learnt how to speak in code. For instance, he’ll say that although not “indigenously British” he has absolutely no problem with law-abiding Asians or Blacks. They may stay. But those who can’t stay within the law, can’t stop snatching British jobs from British workers and can’t stop ruining the peace and tranquility of these lovely islands, should leave. And on and on he can go while appearing as though he is being targeted for standing up for the rights of white people.

I think there are very clear-headed reasons for not allowing Nick Griffin onto Question Time. I’ll update this space with an op-ed soon.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Notes From a New Town

My large Manila envelope was signed, sealed and stapled when I walked into the post office a few days ago. But when it came time to have it delivered, the lady at the counter said, “Next time, don’t staple it.”

“Why”? I asked, trying to think of what could possibly be wrong with this age old method of securing an envelope.

“Because its dangerous to the postmen.”

What? Staples?


I am not one who delights in postmen getting poked by loose staples. But her reason didn’t make me come over all sympathetic for them either. In fact, I’m not feeling sympathetic at all towards the Communication Workers Union which will go on strike in the UK on October 22nd and 23rd, jeopardizing the services of Royal Mail. From what I know and understand it seems a case of workers being unable to face the reality of a declining business (when was the last time you wrote a letter?) or adapting to the changing game of postal services (they lost Amazon’s contract).

I can think of many more things that are more dangerous to postmen right now than the humble stapler pin.

Attacked By A Plump Pestilence

Who doesn’t enjoy hanging in cafes? There is such chemistry when you bring together some sunshine, a blueberry muffin, the newspaper and a hazelnut cappuccino. However, in London I simply can’t do it. Rather, I was so shit-scared after the first time that its very hard forme to eat outdoors again.

I have a long history of leaping out of my skin when a bird gets too close. For instance, when I hear the sound of fluttering wings, like a lot of newspapers being waved furiously in the air, I will cover my face with my hands, hunch my back and run in the opposite direction of the menacing bird.

So when I settled down at a nice corner table under a canopy at a neighbourhood café, I was alarmed to find that pigeons were walking happily under all the tables picking up the smallest crumb that fell off your muffin. I was tense but saw that if I sat absolutely still they just worked around my feet and didn’t bother me. So I carried on and even thought to myself that with more such outings I might conquer my fears.

But about ten minutes into such thoughts, and just as I was finding the ability to focus on the piece about Obama’s heathcare bill, shattering my confidence was the fattest white pigeon of London town. While the other pigeons were content with the crumbs, this bird, in an audacious grab for more, flew straight at me and tried to land on my table to have a stab at my muffin from off my plate!

It was a real battle for a few agonizing seconds as the bird hovered over the table, flapping its wings madly (a sound that makes me weep) while I clung to the wall behind me hoping it would dissolve like the sugar in my coffee.

The confrontation ended only when a gentleman at the next table waved a languid hand at the bird. The pigeons in this city are plump, hungry and aggressive. “See Muffin, Will Peck” is their motto.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Peace Prize Winner Has to Convince Americans First

Barack Hussein Obama, the Nobel Peace Prize winner of 2009 has to first sell his ideas about conflict resolution at home. Incredibly enough, according to a survey by the Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press, a “strong majority (61% of Americans polled) says it is more important to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, even if it means taking military action.”

That is an astonishingly high number for the country that invaded Afghanistan and Iraq and lived to tell the tale – of misery. You’d think that by now even the most dogged, missile-loving, mullah-hating, troop-supporting Republican would have to concede that war may have been the worst of many bad options. But apparently too many people still believe that one military conflagration in the Middle East is not enough.

To be fair to the Republicans, they aren’t the only ones who support the use of force against Iran to stop it from going nuclear. Pew says that there is “broad willingness across the political spectrum.”

“Seven-in-ten Republicans (71%) and two-thirds of independents (66%) say it is more important to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons even if it means taking military action. Click here for the rest of the details.

A Trove At the End Of the Road in Alaska

The Sterling Highway in Alaska ends at the tip of the Kenai Peninsula in a town called Homer. Homer’s main claim to fame though is, its famous spit – a narrow, hooked finger of land, nearly seven and a half kilometers long, jutting out into the waters of the Kachemak Bay. We were on a 12 day road trip in Alaska in an RV (Recreational Vehicle or motor home) and this really was turning out to be a vacation of good clichés. The journey was as important as the destination and we went where the road took us. That is partly how we ended up in Homer.

We rolled into town in the evening and headed straight for its spit. There aren’t too many of these in the world so we were keen to see it and find an RV park on the spit itself. The Homer spit is a lively place with shops, cafes, seafood restaurants and tour operators for fishing expeditions and chartered flights. But as we continued on down the single narrow road that runs to the end of the spit, the landscape became distinctly more scarred. There was junk lying around from what appeared to be abandoned boats and broken down cars and all the RV parks were over priced and crowded with everyone who had reached the end of the Sterling Highway, deciding to stay on.

After just a few days in Alaska’s lonely wilderness, crowds were beginning to annoy us. So we quickly turned around, and found an RV park inside town, away from the spit. It turned out to be a wise decision since it was empty and offered what we really wanted - a breath-taking, uninterrupted view of the Kachemak Bay state park across the water.

But when we woke up the next morning, we didn’t know what to do in Homer. We didn’t want to wander aimlessly through the shops and we certainly didn’t want to sit around in a café all morning. With such beauty outdoors we didn’t want to dive into a museum and while Homer is a great destination for those interested in fishing, the thought of sitting in a boat with a string out, waiting for something to bite, didn’t exactly thrill us to the bone. We were a fussy bunch that morning. So what now?

In the next half hour we worked the phones and came up with a plan that we will congratulate ourselves for, for the rest of our lives. We got out of Homer. Just across the water from Homer lies the Kachemak Bay state park, a vast 400,000 acre playground of mountains, valleys, glaciers and wildlife and therefore a haven for hiking. The only way to get there is to hire a plane or a boat. We found a guy from upstate New York who shows up in Alaska every summer to make some money running a water taxi service between Homer and the Kachemak Bay state park. So in about two hours of waking up and twiddling our toes wondering what to do, we found ourselves huddled in warm clothing, racing in Todd Scanlon’s boat across the cold water to the other side for a five hour hike.

Todd dropped us on a lonely gravel beach that marks the start of the “Glacier Lake Trail” and headed back for Homer. To our deep satisfaction there was absolutely no human being in sight and we entered the trail through the woods with little idea of what lay ahead. Just as we were growing comfortable with the forest of cottonwood and spruce, it ended abruptly opening into a treeless zone of gravel. We marched on, following the trail, curious about where this sudden change in the landscape was leading us, when the trail suddenly started sloping downhill. We could see a huge mountain in the background and as we advanced we felt the excitement similar to an audience waiting for the curtains to go up.

In a few minutes a dramatic sight emerged. We found ourselves standing at the edge of a lake, which had a rim of ice cubes and icebergs in the middle. And coming down into this lake at the opposite end was a majestic river of ice – the Grewingk Glacier.

The glacier, the lake, the rocks, the raven overhead, all seemed to have a personality and it felt as though they were looking at us than we at them. We felt, we were interrupting something very private in this natural kingdom, as though we weren’t supposed to know that this place existed. We just stood there in dumb-founded silence unable to express any admiration for the sight before us. After taking in as much sensory pleasure from the place as possible, we decided to address our hunger pangs. On a fine flat rock we laid our out makeshift lunch of strawberries, granola bars, grapes, bananas, Oreo cookies and a packet of trail mix and found that never had a meal of such odds and ends been so satisfying.

Having seen off our hunger pangs, we bid farewell to our private glacier (we now feel proprietorial to the Grewingk glacier) and started out again to complete the rest of our hike downhill. During the summer, Alaska has nearly 20 hours of daylight so there was no fear of the sun going down on us in the middle of the forest. But it was starting to get grey and cloudy and we really didn’t want to get stuck in a cold rain. Secretly everyone prayed that Todd had not forgotten us.

As we started on our descent the Kachemak Bay came into view again. In the far distance we could see a little speck of a boat heading our way. Again, secretly everyone hoped it was Todd and not a fishing expedition. The boat kept coming closer and closer as we kept getting nearer and nearer the shore – the scene building up nicely for a Hindi cinemaesque slow-mo reunion. We were about 100 feet away when the bushes finally cleared and we got a good view of the boat. To our immense relief, it was Todd who had shown up at the stroke of five!

All sides were proud of their clockwork precision without the exchange of even a single phone call. We jumped into the boat, happy and exercised, and with the warm glow of those to whom nature has revealed a little secret – beyond Homer where the road ends.

This piece was published in the Indian Express on September 27th 2009.