Tuesday, October 20, 2009

J'Accuse le BBC

Nick Griffin, if you haven't noticed already, is due to appear on this week's BBC's flagship political programme 'Question Time'. There is much concern and commentary across the media about this as a key moment in the growing acceptability of the BNP. It is their moment of arrival. The first point that I'd make is that the narrative of the steady upward climb of the far-right is (like the fear of the Muslim take-over) exaggerated and complicated. Many places have seen the rise and fall of the BNP vote already. Other places are still experiencing a rise, but for different reasons - mostly to do with the fracturing of the Labour vote. The BNP tends not to be as succesful in Tory areas and this may be due to 'a class thing' - ex Tory voters tend to vote Lib Dem or UKIP, whereas ex Labour voters tend to vote BNP.

This issue to me is more about the BBC than it is about Nick Griffin, and it is more about the content than it is about personalities. Many commentators have noted a shift in BNP rhetoric over the years to focus on anti-Muslim arguments - the same arguments that we are all familiar with. He will no doubt refer to them on the programme. The problem for me is that it is not the case as far as anti-Muslim prejudice is concerned that Nick Griffin is the prejudiced one, and all the rest are not prejudiced. Rather, sadly, it is the case that the opinions that Nick Griffin would wish to put forward are indeed shared by many in the 'respectable political establishment' especially when it comes to Muslims. The accumulative result is that there may appear in fact to be some truth in what Nick Griffin is saying, because as in Venn diagrams there is too much overlap with 'mainstream politicians'. It will be in these moments when the nation will collectively gulp as they recognise that they are in agreement with the leader of the BNP. (J'Accuse le BBC). The anti-Muslim narrative will begin to assume an air of truth.

Let's look at the people that have been reported as being approached to attend this Thursday: Richard Littlejohn, Douglas Murray and Michael Gove. Unfortunately in relation to some of their views on Muslim communities, there is much overlap between these individuals in their opinions. Hence the opportunism of the BNP.

Even of those that have been selected: Sayeeda Warsi and Jack Bhai, there is still unfortunately some overlap. I still haven't got to the bottom of Jack Bhai's comments on the niqab when Minister after Minister followed Jack's lead to lay in to the Muslim community and off their own personal portfolio. That was just wierd. One day we'll find out. Sayeeda Warsi has to engage in the politics of compensation in which she has to celebrate her success as a leading Muslim politician and compensate for it at the same time by saying the kind of things that could be agreeable to a BNP voter.

I blame the BBC. If the boundaries of acceptability have been widened, and content has been added to the narrative, then the appearance of Nick Griffin on the BBC is not one huge leap for freedom, but rather another small step in the direction of support for anti-Muslim prejudice by the nation's broadcaster.

Those who follow this blog will know that I have been chasing the BBC on its continued inclusion of Melanie Phillips on the Moral Maze as a panellist even on Muslim related issues when many Muslims have had to put themselves in a position of vulnerability to someone who has called for the use of torture in the war of terror and that the problem with the British government's policy on counter-terrorism is that they are not taming Muslims like we used to do in the Raj (I'll leave it for you to put two and two together).

The BBC's flagship religious discussion programme is called 'the Big Questions' and has recently invited Douglas Murray as a panellist on Islam and Muslims when he has said in the past that 'Islam is an opportunistic infection in Europe' (why is he calling us opportunistic?). Again, there is overlap between people who have been given prime-time space to make their anti-Muslim comments and some of the things that Nick Griffin says.

I used to think that the BBC was left-wing and pro-minorities. This is until I heard Greg Dyke as CEO describe it as 'hideously white' and then began to come across people in public life as former BBC employees: Rod Liddle and Anthony Browne are two examples of people who have had very influential positions in the BBC and also hold extreme views on Muslims and multiculturalism. This has made me wonder. Perhaps the BBC is not the airy-fairy, nicey-daisy organisation that some make it out to be. Perhaps its active encouragement of the anti-Muslim position over the years is just the simple context for this next step to be taken this week.

Which returns me to my title: I accuse the BBC of neglect and the systematic devaluation of its Muslim community.

If I was in the BBC in the months after 11 September 2001 and I had a position of responsibility, I would have immediately called in three lieutenants and said: 'Right, we need Muslim journalists, Muslim producers, Muslim editors and Muslim writers - and I don't want people who know nothing about the community - we need to know what's going on, what they're thinking etc. Bring them in'. Instead, as many people who keep an eye on the BBC know, there has been very little inclusion but plenty of objectification of this over-represented minority. Even til today, while the anti-Muslim voice gains ground. I can give examples here, one is the recent radio 4 programme on Muslim identity by Kenan Malik which was really poor and boring. (Some will point to the appointment of Aqeel Ahmed as head of commissioning for religious broadcasting at the BBC as a counter-argument - all that this does is put the burden of representation on to one individual who has to champion and compensate at the same time within the above kind of environment. The BBC would be on much stronger ground if it can bring ten practising Muslims who are succesful and achieving producers/writers/journalists to the fore).

I don't have a problem with freedom of speech, I think Nick Griffin, Melanie Phillips and others do have a right to their freedom of speech, but, crucially, so do we. Sorry, so did we, during the Bush years.

And this brings me to the final point. It was Emile Zola who wrote the famous riposte 'J'Accuse' against the French state for the false imprisonment of a Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus for treason. This cultural moment in French anti-semitism became known as the Dreyfus Affair. Some cultural commentators have in their more inspired moments contrasted the similarities and differences between the Dreyfus affair and the Rushdie affair. To me, the key difference seems to be that the Dreyfus affair was about the false imprisonment of an innocent Jew which then lead to a fairer treatment of Jews as a whole. The Dreyfus affair disrupted the anti-Jewish narrative. The Rushdie affair is about the fatwa but it was also slanted against the differentiated community rather than for it as in the Dreyfus affair. The Rushdie affair compounded the anti-Muslim narrative. The BBC played an important role in the Rushdie affair (I have studied this matter for my PhD). It helped then to increase the distance between communities. That was in 1989. Today, twenty years on and amazingly despite the Bush years (the volume and the intensity), the BBC - despite the odd exceptions - stands at a place in relation to the Muslim community which is discriminatory and prejudicial.

There is an alternative narrative - there is nothing inevitable about the anti-Muslim argument - there is another way to talk about what is happening in our cities, but it will require the BBC to find the tolerance, the courage and the will to find those ten Muslims that I referred to earlier.

And my question for Nick Griffin on the day?

How many colours in the rainbow?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Regenerating the Heart of Bradford

Visitors from outside of town when driving through Bradford may have noticed a huge hole in the centre of the city. This is because several buildings were knocked down a few years ago to make way for a new shopping centre which is to be built by Westfield - a leading construction company in this area. Bradford is basically looking to develop a mini-shopping centre like Meadowhall just outside Sheffield or Trafford Centre just outside Manchester, only smaller. There have been difficulties getting enough tenants for the centre and the recession managed to slow things down before they had got started. I would like to call for something completely different.

If we want to revive Bradford's city centre, then we have to ask why would anyone want to shop in Bradford when they can shop online, go to White Rose shopping centre in Leeds, or Leeds city centre itself (with Harvey Nichols etc.), or Meadowhall or Trafford Centre, or Manchester city centre which has come on leaps and bounds as well. Most people that I have spoken to have said that if they want to go shopping then they will visit one of these areas, not a lesser version in Bradford and I can't see how having a couple of the usual tenants (BHS, M and S) would attract a greater proportion of shopping public that is now more mobile and that has the ability to shop from home.

If we want Bradford city centre to work then we have to sell it as an experience, a multicultural experience - in fact, this is why many people from outside of Bradford come to Bradford - to 'have a curry'. Bradford on the street looks very different to what it did in the nineties. Great Horton road, Leeds road, White Abbey road... these roads are alive and one could argue that Bradford has become the eating out capital of the North overtaking Wilmslow road in Manchester of yesteryear. Clothing outlets like Atique Textiles and Bombay Stores have also developed and attract many visitors from outside.

This is where the regeneration chiefs need to make their presence felt - they need to bring these and individual parts of Bradford's economic life into one whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The way to do this is to change the design of the city centre - as is already currently being planned but bring everything into one place: a park at the heart that is surrounded by the leading high street stores, the best Asian restaurants and fast food joints and the best Asian clothing outlets -who knows there may even be some intercultural fusion in this kind of set up so Bombay Stores could start selling goods that are Eastern and Western at the same time. That would be genuinely exciting. I know that the creative flair exists in Bradford to do this, it just needs some creative and decisive leadership from the regeneration wallahs so that they can begin to see a vision in which a family may decide to spend a Saturday afternoon in Bradford where they can pop in to Next and BHS but also stroll through a park to Mumtaz's for lunch before buying some ethnic Westernwear from Bombay Stores on their way home. This could make Bradford stand out from the crowd and draw in numerous customers from outside of the city.