If I had been a journalist in Germany in the 1930s, would I have interviewed Adolf Hitler?
If I had been in Russia, how about Stalin? Or Mao in China in the 1950s?
Answer: Yes. Of course. Loathsome mass murderers though they were, a journalist’s job is to report on who, and what, shapes the world.
As it happens, I have actually interviewed a loathsome mass murderer. His name was Radovan Karadžić, and he is now serving forty years in prison after being convicted of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity during the war in Bosnia in the early 1990s.
Did I want to interview him? Frankly, no, I hated the idea. As I recount in my memoir, Is Anything Happening?:
I told my colleagues that I did not relish the prospect of interviewing a man whom I regarded even then as a war criminal. But they were insistent, so we reached a deal that would enable me to live with my conscience while still doing the job for which I was being paid.
‘Show him into the studio and then call me,’ I said. ‘I won’t shake his hand, and I won’t make small talk. I’ll go into the studio, I’ll do the interview and then I’ll say, “Thank you” and walk out.’
That is what we did. I challenged him as hard as I could when he denied that his forces were firing indiscriminately into a heavily populated city and I hoped that listeners would understand that he was lying. I was persuaded, reluctantly, that they deserved a chance to be able to make up their own minds, but I hated doing it.
And that is how I would have dealt with Hitler, Stalin or Mao. It is also how, if I had the chance, I would deal today with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.
Why do I raise this now? Because there seems to be a growing belief, especially on the left, that people with objectionable views should not be questioned in the media or allowed to speak from public platforms.
Steve Bannon, self-appointed standard bearer of ultra-nationalism? Tommy Robinson, real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, formerly of the British National Party and the English Defence League? To put them on air, or to allow them on a platform is – so it is argued – to ‘normalise’ their arguments and by doing so, to increase the risk that more people will follow them.
I don’t agree. I remember when Nick Griffin, the then leader of the BNP, appeared amid much controversy on the BBC’s Question Time programme in 2009. It was an unmitigated disaster for both him and his party – by 2014 he had lost his seat in the European parliament, been expelled from the party and declared bankrupt.
I also remember Margaret Thatcher banning the voices of Irish Republicans from the air waves in 1988. That wasn’t a huge success either, its main effect being to provide useful work for Irish actors who were hired by broadcasters to read the words that had been spoken by the banned IRA or Sinn Fein spokespeople.
Thatcher’s view was that the media must deny people whom she regarded as terrorists the ‘oxygen of publicity’. I believe the opposite: that the oxygen of publicity is the best disinfectant available when toxins threaten to take hold in the body politic.
So yes, the BBC’s Newsnight programme was absolutely right to broadcast a carefully made film about Tommy Robinson and the roots of his support two weeks ago (full disclosure: the reporter, Gabriel Gatehouse, is a friend and former colleague). And yes, the editor of The Economist, Zanny Minton Beddoes, was perfectly entitled to interview Steve Bannon as part of the magazine’s Open Future festival last month.
As she put it in a statement: ‘The future of open societies will not be secured by like-minded people speaking to each other in an echo chamber, but by subjecting ideas and individuals from all sides to rigorous questioning and debate. This will expose bigotry and prejudice, just as it will reaffirm and refresh liberalism.’
Similarly, Nicola Sturgeon was, I think, wrong to withdraw from a conference to be held in Edinburgh next month at which Steve Bannon was due to appear the following day. She did not want, she said, to ‘be part of any process that risks legitimising or normalising far right, racist views.’
A couple of days ago, a group of academics attacked plans to hold a debate on the topic ‘Is rising ethnic diversity a threat to the West?’ It was, they said, ‘framed within the terms of white supremacist discourse. Far from being courageous or representative of the views of a “silent majority”, this is a reactionary, opportunistic and intentionally provocative approach …’
The academics insisted that they were not trying to shut down debate: ‘We are simply asking that we do not give yet more ground to those who seek to shift the blame for systemic failures onto communities who are already subject to oppression and hostility, and legitimise hate and scapegoating as if that is analysis.’
This is dangerous territory. Yes, of course organisers of this kind of debate must be sensitive about the way they frame the question – in fact the title of this particular event has now been amended to ‘Immigration and Diversity Politics: A Challenge to Liberal Democracy?’, which at least gets rid of the problematic word ‘threat’.
The Times columnist David Aaronovitch, who is scheduled to be one of the debate participants, was not impressed: ‘Ironically and tragically, this idiocy by the liberal left allows the far right to pose as the champions of free speech and therefore as champions of true British aspirations. And that’s at a moment when the whole direction of the pro-diversity argument should be that a multi-ethnic, tolerant Britain is the best embodiment of our national values.’
Which surely is the key point, because if there is one way to add fuel to the pernicious bigotry peddled by white supremacists, nativists and extreme nationalists, it is to pretend that they don’t exist. Much of their appeal, after all, is based on the argument that they are ignored, belittled and shut out of the hated mainstream media.
It would be the height of stupidity to prove them right.