It is not enough for journalists to see themselves as mere messengers without understanding the hidden agendas of the message and myths that surround it
– John Pilger
There are two challenges facing the media when it comes to the far right: the professional challenge of reporting the British National Party, and the personal challenge of avoiding recriminations.
Here, two journalists who specialise in covering the far right, The Mirror’s Tom Parry and the Yorkshire Evening Post’s Pete Lazenby tell of their experience reporting the BNP, and give some tips:
The apparent – and some would say over-exaggerated – rise of the British National Party this year is a phenomenon unlike anything else in normal politics. For news reporters, writing objectively about the views of Nick Griffin and his followers presents a completely alien challenge that bears no comparison to the day-to-day sniping between Labour, Conservative and the Lib Dems.
When I was first asked to report on the BNP for the Daily Mirror’s Hope not Hate campaign in May this year I assumed the party was such an easy target that firing off a daily page-lead on their European election campaign would be straightforward. After all, Griffin never misses a chance to produce the most shocking soundbites. I was, however, naive in my assumption.
The first difficulty of reporting on the BNP is obtaining a useable comment from the party’s spokesman and deputy chairman Simon Darby. He is the first port-of-call for journalists offering the party a right to reply. In my experience, a conversation with Mr Darby is unlike any with a mainstream party’s head of communications or press office. However awkward your question, a proper press spokesman is always civil and as honest as he or she is allowed to be.
In the first days of the Hope not Hate bus tour – when he was still prepared to answer my calls – Darby would habitually turn the request for a statement on something one of the party’s prominent members had said into a personal attack.
I remember vividly how when I asked about a picture of his boss with prominent Ku Klux Klan member Don Black he suddenly twisted the conversation to an all-out onslaught on how Labour had taken Britain into an “unwinnable” and “immoral” war in Iraq that had lost thousands of innocent lives so the West could be kept in petrol.
I said that personally I had some sympathy with this standpoint but that it had nothing whatsoever to do with the pictures of Nick Griffin with an avowed white supremacist. The following day his recollection of our conversation had appeared on his blog, which is obsessively read by BNP sympathisers.
I was later described by Mr Darby on his blog as a “drippingly wet liberal”. It’s far from the truth, but I took pride in not just being slagged off as a liberal, but a “drippingly wet” one, surely the best kind of back-handed compliment coming from the BNP!
There was another occasion when I had to ask Darby about a leafleting demonstration Griffin had took part in some years previously outside the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral in which he handed out flyers claiming a service to commemorate the Nazi bombing of the city was a “guilt trip”.
This was to tie in with the bus’s stop-off in Coventry when – in all honesty – nothing else of great interest was happening. With an air of personal triumph in his voice, Darby asked me: “Oh come on, Tom, is that really the best you can do? Why are you asking me to comment on something that happened more than 10 years ago?”
This total dismissal of a story was a common tactic of his. If you accept the BNP’s standpoint that Griffin’s placard-waving outside such a sensitive location is not news because the party leader is historically correct in his re-writing of Nazi atrocities, then the argument follows that there is no case to answer.
So the reporter is left with a comment that suggests to newspaper lawyers there is something flawed in the story; rather than just a disagreement over whether it is valid to expose a politician’s former – and current – allegedly insensitive behaviour.
On a similar note, reporters digging into their local BNP candidates need to be wary of the almost blanket legal threats that Mr Darby and the BNP’s legal team issue as standard practice.
Letters are fired off almost automatically to indicate an alleged breach of the PCC code or an inaccuracy. This does not necessarily mean there is a solid basis for the threat; merely it puts extra onus on the journalist to ensure every fact is checked, checked and checked again prior to publication.
The worst face-to-face encounter with BNP intimidation I witnessed was when the Hope not Hate bus stopped off in the County Durham towns of Spennymoor and Ferryhill.
In Spennymoor regional BNP candidate Adam Walker – accused of racial intolerance by the General Teaching Council – turned up and stood as close as he could to the bus to give out his own message to shoppers.
All perfectly acceptable, but while Adam was giving out his own leaflets his brother Mark, also a BNP candidate, harangued the volunteers gathered around the Daily Mirror’s bus, pretending to be a normal passer-by, despite Searchlight’s Matthew Collins, who was stood beside me, knowing his full background.
Another BNP supporter in full war hero medal-wearing regalia refused to give his credentials when confronted by a man who had come to back Hope not Hate who had himself served with the military.
When the bus got to Ferryhill the handful of BNP diehards had already set up their stall, deliberately right next to the parking spot for the bus agreed with the local council.
Alongside the Walker brothers and their companions were some local children, who came over to us and asked the bus driver if they could climb up to the top deck of the bus. In the spirit of the community campaign, the ever-generous driver was only too happy to oblige.
Seconds later the children bounded down the stairs and back over to Adam Walker, giggling hysterically. They had let off stink bombs, making the bus uninhabitable for at least an hour. Who knows where they had got the stink bombs and why they went back to tell the local BNP candidate about their exploits?
My experience of writing about the BNP prompted me to consider whether reporting every Griffin statement that flies in the face of accepted moral standards is still a good thing.
I thought that the Question Time special on which Griffin appeared was fantastic because it exposed his flaws on the biggest stage and to greater ridicule across every single media outlet in Britain than ever before.
Now that has been done, however, a continued trickle of stories in national and regional papers could help the party broaden its very limited appeal.
Nick Griffin and Simon Darby are masters at portraying themselves as the victims of mainstream politicians; they use the term the “silent majority” at all times, with no evidence of votes reflecting this groundswell of support. Yet if they pick up a few people disenfranchised with the main parties every time a story gets published then they are succeeding.
I agree with a colleague of mine who said the only BNP stories still worth reporting now are those that still shock law-abiding readers of any creed or colour to the core.
There is no point in treating the BNP as a proper political unit; spend time observing any of their supposedly reformed members and you will see they are most certainly not.
After all we all know he is a homophobic, racist, Holocaust denier now: he made that perfectly clear on Question Time.
Pete Lazenby, Reporter at the Yorkshire Evening Post:
The British National Party is the latest, and most successful, manifestation of Britain’s fascist and neo-Nazi parties whose roots stretch back to Sir Oswald Moseley and his British Union of Fascists in the 1930s.
I have been covering the far right in my part of the world, Yorkshire and the north, since the 1970s. At that time neo-Nazi groups were recruiting at Leeds United’s Elland Road ground. A long-running and successful campaign was mounted by anti-fascist fans, but the far right constantly return so the battle is never over.
My first exposure piece was about a group called the National Democratic Freedom Movement, a hard-line neo-Nazi organisation arming its young thugs with machetes, bike chains and knives “to protect white property.” The group is long gone but its leaders are still active.
The development of the BNP under Nick Griffin is worrying. By shedding the image of the sieg-heiling, skinhead bootboys of the National Front, Griffin is striving for, and to some extent achieving, a degree of acceptance.
He claims the BNP is just another mainstream party with some different ideas. His activists now wear suits, and collars and ties. They seek votes to achieve power.
The new image is of course a veneer. Beneath the surface we find the same old anti-Semitic, racist fanatics, the men of violence.
Our role as journalists is to tear off the veneer and reveal the true nature of the BNP.
For some years at the Yorkshire Evening Post we were fortunate to have an editor who shared this belief enthusiastically. He gave us the resources we needed – mainly staff and time – to do what was needed. The result was a series of exposes published in the days running up to local elections. We repeated this year after year, digging for and revealing new information.
The strategy we adopted was two-pronged. There was the expose side. BNP activists unfailingly revert to type at some stage. BNP youth leader Mark Collett, who was secretly filmed praising Hitler, is an example of that. Also even cursory checks can reveal the criminal backgrounds of many BNP activists.
Their tactics in grooming vulnerable young people are also revealing.
In Leeds I was approached by a young man who had been recruited into the BNP at a low point in his life. He was only 15, fell out with his step dad and his mum, was unhappy at home, suffered at school.
He was typical of the young people targeted by the BNP. They offered him friendship, security, protection. They told him he didn’t need his family, or other mates. They’d be his mates – and they fed him their racist bile. He leafleted with them, was drawn in deeper.
Two years on he took a temporary job at a bank prior to going to university. There he met a young woman of Asian origin. They became friends, just friends. He discovered through her the depths of the lies the BNP had pumped into him about Asian people and Muslims.
He quit the BNP, but wanted to tell me his story before he left for University so that other vulnerable young people could be warned. This, a typical BNP indoctrination of a troubled schoolboy, was our front page splash the day before a local election.
Exposes are by their nature negative. In the long-term this can have a depressing effect on readers.
So we have the second prong of the strategy – positive reporting about the people who are targeted by the BNP, and about those who oppose them.
Positive stories about ethnic minority communities and people are not hard to find. Leading figures in the communities are generally happy to provide material on issues such as self-help groups within communities, or charitable activities, particularly those benefiting the whole community.
We have produced positive stories about asylum seekers whose voluntary work is helping others even worse off than they are. Stories of multi-racial activities, whether it’s a football team or a cycling club or whatever, present positive images of cross-racial friendship. In Leeds we’ve got one of Britain’s only Islamic Scout troops.
Then there are those actively opposing the BNP. Faith groups are increasingly mobilising against the BNP. In Yorkshire the leaders of half a dozen different faiths have come together, displaying unity against racism and fascism, making public statements in opposition to the BNP.
One faith group followed an initiative first launched in London by producing the “Rainbow Ribbon” – a small, cloth lapel badge containing all the colours of the rainbow. Wearing the ribbon was a statement of unity between people of different colours and races.
The ribbons were launched at an event in Leeds with 100 young people and faith leaders wearing them proudly. It made great pictures. The ribbons were bought from a local textile manufacturer. His usual customers for the cloth were the armed forces. I suppose there’s irony in the fact that the ribbons were usually attached to medals awarded for gallantry.
We also covered initiatives in the education system – a key area of activity in the battle against racism. Most education authorities have them.
We’ve also done stories about schools with up to 27 different nationalities among pupils. At one, fund-raising for catastrophes was a permanent feature of the school’s programme because at any given time some children at the school had relatives in an area hit by disaster – earthquake, tsunami, famine, drought, war.
Sadly the editor who gave us the opportunity to mount such comprehensive campaigns departed. Our current editor is less disposed to allow us the resources we need. Having said that, we can always rely on the BNP themselves to hand us the ammunition.
Recently right on cue a BNP Council candidate in South Yorkshire said there had been positive benefits from the Holocaust, such as advances in plastic surgery. We and many others used that to good effect.
The work continues. The BNP holds only a tiny fraction of Britain’s Council seats. It has no MPs. It has two Euro-MPs. I believe the BNP would have had far greater electoral success had it not been for the efforts groups such as Searchlight’s Hope Not Hate campaign, Unite Against Fascism, trades unions and other organisations, and those sections of the media, like the YEP, which have played a campaigning role.
But the BNP is today polling hundreds of thousands of votes.
I do not believe that BNP voters are all neo-Nazis and fascists. I believe many are taken in by BNP lies. They also feel frustration with their traditional political parties.
We may not be able to do much about the traditional political parties. But we can tell people the truth – truth, our biggest weapon.
As journalists we must now add to our responsibilities the job of monitoring every BNP candidate who wins a seat at whatever level.
Experience tells us that the vast majority will prove to be useless and incompetent. Others will provide us with even better ammunition. In Calderdale in West Yorkshire a BNP councillor was convicted of benefit fraud – as the judge put it, stealing from the very people he had been elected to represent.
The BNP survives and grows on lies. Eventually and inevitably they let the mask slip, revealing their real revolting beliefs. We must be there when it happens, ever ready to expose them for what they are.
The work is not without its dangers. The BNP and their fellow travellers will not hesitate to use violence if they can do so without being caught.
The neo-Nazi Redwatch website has a section dedicated to “red” journalists. Any journalist who writes anything unfavourable about the BNP is deemed by them to be a “red.” It publishes photos, addresses, car registration numbers, ‘phone numbers. The BNP denies involvement in Redwatch. Another lie.
The union is campaigning for Redwatch to be shut down. Redwatch is
In Leeds the details of two teachers who were active anti-fascists were published on Redwatch – home address, car registration etc. Days later their car was fire-bombed outside their home.
Liverpool anti-fascist campaigner Alex McFadden was stabbed in the
face in the doorway of his home after his details were published.
I was physically attacked in court by a long-time neo-Nazi who had previously confronted me in the street.
The Combat 18 website has been seeking my home address for years.
As journalists we must not be put off by threats or even by physical attacks. Nor must we become paranoid – but we can take one or two simple and sensible precautions. I do. I’m not going to deal with them here.