Jeremy Paxman caused something of a stir this week when his interview on BBC Television’s Newsnight with Tommy Robinson from the EDL was deemed to be out of step with his traditional interrogation style he built his reputation on. Some even questioned the idea of providing airtime to such a provocative individual, only three days after last week’s atrocities in Norway by the far-right extremist Anders Behring Breivik.
I have always felt it is important in a democracy to provide a platform to people I don’t necessarily agree with. I celebrated the appearance of the BNP’s Nick Griffin on Question Time for example and the manner in which he was taken apart by fellow panelists and the studio audience.
I will defend the right of people like Griffin and Robinson to have a stage to air their unusual views of the world. But I also feel we need to look closer at what this freedom should entail. If we are going to uphold the freedom’s of far right extremists, then we cannot screech in horror when some people decide to burn some poppies during a demonstration.
Freedom of speech is freedom of speech. Some may say that Tommy Robinson’s appearance on the BBC amounted to inciting racial hatred and should not have been broadcast. I disagree; I feel that it is right that he is provided an opportunity to share his political perspective, even if in doing so he makes me personally feel very uncomfortable. Disturbed even. Perhaps almost as disturbing as paying your respects during Remembrance ceremonies and hearing of somebody mocking the event by burning poppies. Yet we cannot have a situation where we selectively defend and uphold the freedoms in some cases, while utilising the full force of the law to remove the right from others.
It is time we have a full and frank debate about what freedom of speech actually means. And let me reiterate again, I do not want to see people like Robinson or Griffin banned, however I would like to see better consistency so that they have their stage, but that equally if some people wish to express their opposition to military campaigns around the world (and I do believe there are far better ways of doing this nonetheless) they should have the freedom to do so. And if they want to purchase some flowers and burn them at the same time then that should be their right to do so. I don’t expect you to agree with it, I’d be troubled personally if you did, but we must enable people a right to express their views, irrespective of how uncomfortable they may make us feel.