In recent weeks, a number of quite astounding articles have appeared in the British press. These have included among others, a Times column opining the benefit to Britain in the current climate of having a political leader like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; referred to as “strongmen”. In the Daily Telegraph, a similarly toned piece contemplated the reinstatement of the death penalty after Brexit.
Somewhat appealing to the lowest common denominator, these and similar articles prompt questions about the extent to which Britain’s mainstream media is shifting towards the right of the political spectrum. Even more worrying is the extent to which it is “normalising” extreme right-wing ideas and ideologies.
A recent Sunday Times article by Andrew Gilligan referred to “hipster fascists” with their penchant for New Balance trainers and skinny jeans. So their views might be out where the buses don’t run, but at least they have a decent dress code.
It’s not just the print media. Mainstream broadcasters have been giving significant airtime to various prominent far-right identities. These have included the former Breitbart London editor Raheem Kassam appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme to discuss the release of Tommy Robinson, the former leader of the anti-Islam English Defence League, on bail after winning an appeal against a contempt of court conviction. Meanwhile Ezra Levant, Robinson’s former employer at the Canadian far-right website Rebel Media, appeared on BBC 5 Live’s Breakfast Show.
Steve Bannon, the former executive chairman of Breitbart News and Donald Trump’s former strategy guru, was invited onto LBC and told Nigel Farage: “I don’t think Robinson’s a bad guy. I think he’s a solid guy and I think he’s got to be released from prison.” This followed an extensive interview with BBC Newsnight in May.
It is worth noting that prior to his conviction, Robinson himself was something of a darling of the mainstream media. He has been a guest on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, BBC Radio 4’s Today, BBC2’s Newsnight and BBC1’s The Big Questions, among others.
Given the recurrence of Robinson’s appearances in the mainstream media, it can be argued that not only has this played down the highly divisive and dangerous views and ideologies he has espoused but so too has it legitimised his claim to be voice of the people. That has the potential to have quite dangerous and dire consequences.
A ‘new normal’
Indeed, one of the goals of right-wing extremists has always been to appear “normal”. In recent years, the British National Party was transformed under the leadership of Nick Griffin. By trying to look more like mainstream politicians, Griffin believed that the British National Party would become more electable. Despite the outward change, its nationalist agenda remained constant.
While the BNP achieved relative success in local and European elections, Griffin’s appearance on BBC1’s Question Time pretty much destroyed his credibility both inside and outside the BNP. Describing the treatment he received as being akin to a “lynch mob” highlights the stark difference between then and now.
If seen to be complicit in the process of “normalisation” then – through playing down or trivialising the very real and detrimental impact bigotry and hate can have on the lives of individuals, communities and wider society – the mainstream media could be accused of conferring acceptability on some of these views.
Focusing upon the style, clothes or brands worn by far-right activists or having debates about the extent to which they might be a “working-class hero” fails to acknowledge the highly politicised agendas and ideologies those being focused on seek to disseminate. It also has the potential to embolden and strengthen their supporters and act as a recruiting tool – making them appear as the “true voice” of certain communities, groups or constituencies.
You could argue that the mainstream media did much the same with the unprecedented platform afforded to the now-imprisoned Islamist extremist, Anjem Choudary. Not only did he reinforce negative stereotypes about Muslims and Islam in the wider community – but the mainstream media’s endorsement of him as a key Muslim leader caused consternation among the vast majority of British Muslims for whom his views were extreme and not in the least representative of them.
The same can be said by the “strongman” article by Clare Foges, a former speechwriter for David Cameron. Her article massively plays down the more unpalatable policies of leaders such as Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and Turkish president Erdoğan. Foges in fact praises them, as well as Trump and Putin, for getting things done.
But it also overlooks the very real fact that under their leadership, values that are held dear by democracies including the UK – among them democracy, free speech and justice – have at times been restricted, constrained or completely removed.
Knowing that the murder of Jo Cox and the attack on Finsbury Park Mosque were perpetrated by individuals aligned to extreme right-wing ideologies should be itself warning enough that affording greater legitimacy to and normalising such views is extremely dangerous.
Put this in the context of the sharp rise in the number of people being referred to Prevent for holding extreme right-wing views and the fact that levels of hate crime last year reached record highs and the seriousness of the matter is unquestionable.
I’m not advocating censorship or limiting free speech – far from it. What I am saying is that the mainstream media has a responsibility for ensuring objectivity and impartiality. The zeal to maintain what is obviously a false balance by giving a platform to such extremists is not part of that remit. Big media organisations must be aware that legitimisation of the far right is not acceptable. They cannot normalise nor be seen to give permission to what are, in truth, hateful ideas and ideologies.
Chris Allen, Associate Professor in Hate Studies, University of Leicester.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.