BNP extremists must be exposed to public view
BY NICK GARBUTT It has been fascinating to see a Northern Irish journalist making headlines in England in the past week. When Geoff Martin decided to allow an advertisement from the far right British National Party to be carried in the Ham&High it provoked outrage. As a
It has been fascinating to see a Northern Irish journalist making headlines in England in the past week. When Geoff Martin decided to allow an advertisement from the far right British National Party to be carried in the Ham&High it provoked outrage.
As all readers know, it showed a happy family with three children under the headlines 'People like you voting BNP' and 'The BNP putting Londoners first'. The resulting row was carried in all the national newspapers and Mr Martin was subjected to a well orchestrated hate campaign.
It was great stuff - the kind of story all newspapers love, but at the same time it was extraordinarily depressing.
Extremists with views most people find unacceptable thrive on oppression and censorship.
Geoff Martin learned that in Belfast. When Margaret Thatcher decided that she was going to deprive Sinn Fein the oxygen of publicity by imposing a broadcasting ban on Sinn Fein she made a monumental blunder.
It made men of violence look like victims. It gave them a spurious mystique, creating the impression that their words were so persuasive that anyone listening to them would be immediately converted to armed republicanism.
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This was of course ridiculous - when the ban was reversed we discovered that Gerry Adams spoken by an actor reading from a script sounded much better than Gerry Adams himself. He's actually a very dull speaker.
The reality is that the only way to tackle extremists is to expose them to public view, to challenge their arguments, to help people understand what they really stand for. People are not stupid and they are entitled to be able to make their own minds up about Sinn Fein, the BNP, Muslim fundamentalists and anyone else.
After all, BNP-style "nationalism" is not a political position that stands up to examination. At its heart is fear, ignorance and bigotry.
In Northern Ireland the ending of censorship helped stimulate a debate amongst republicans, and indeed loyalists, about the nature of "armed struggle" and the proportionality of bombing and shooting to the injustice that provoked it. This ultimately led to the peace process and the institution of the structures of governance we enjoy here today.
The trouble with Mr Martin's opponents is that they think that "ordinary" people are not capable of exercising their own judgement. That's why they want to censor his paper, send him unpleasant emails and demonstrate outside his offices.
This saddening incident suggests that perhaps, after all, the good citizens of London might have something to learn about the fundamentals of free speech and democracy from the most troubled part of the UK
Those of us who have worked in the media in Northern Ireland understand to the core of our beings that holding up extreme views to scrutiny and debate, and not censorship, is the only way to progress.
Nick Garbutt is managing director of Asitis Consulting and was editor of the Irish News and deputy editor of the