A major debate this week — both among journalists and political bloggers — has been whether regional newspaper group Archant was right to have accepted an advertisement from the far-right British National Party in London.
The question of whether the BNP, or other fringe political parties, should be sold advertising space is a recurring debate in the regional press. last May, for example, journalists at the South Wales Evening Post ran an ad from the BNP, provoking outrage from some of their own journalists.
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This time around, Hamstead and Highgate Express editor Geoff Martin has defended running the ad in his newspaper. It’s not the first time Martin has dealt with the issue. He took a similar stance a year ago, when he was criticised by Camden councillors after quoted a BNP member on its front page.
But other papers haven’t taken the same line, however. Ian Carter, editor of the Northcliffe Media-owned Croydon Advertiser said his paper had turned away the BNP when it asked to run the ad .
Many political bloggers, particularly those who support Labour in Camden, have been outraged by the Ham & High’s decision.
“This shameless pursuit of profit over principle is unacceptable, and just weeks before an election where only 5% could see the BNP get seats on the London Assembly,” says the blog LabourHome. The site called on supporters to write too Archant chief executive John Fry.
One such supporter was Hackney Labour councillor Luke Akehurst, who has published an open letter to Archant expressing concern that the party might advertise in his local Archant title, the Hackney Gazette.
Meanwhile, one Labour councillor in Camden, Jonathan Simpson, has set up a Facebook group opposed to Archant’s decision.
One outspoken critic of the Ham & High’s stance is councillor Theo Blackwell. He has suggested that Archant’s other commercial activities in the area might lose local support: “Certainly everyone I have spoken to says that Archant sponsorship of the Camden ‘EPIC’ awards – rewarding local people who have done voluntary work for the community – should be reviewed: we shouldn’t take tainted Archant cash,” he writes.
Spectator blogger Stephen Pollard weighs the free speech issues and also comes down against the Ham & High.
“[T]here’s a big difference between allowing the likes of the BNP to speak … and actively giving them a platform,” he writes.
“It is disingenuous in the extreme for the Ham and High to claim any exalted motivation for their decision to take an advert. Whatever the motivation was, it had nothing to do with notions of free speech.”
In the Index on Censorship, Peter Wilby recalls facing similar dilemmas as editor of the New Statesman when he was sometimes criticised for taking advertisements from arms manufacturers. He seems to come down against the Ham & High decision as well, arguing that anything to do with race falls into a special category.
“An advertisement from an arms company may try to sell something that leads to death and destruction, but it does not promote anything that personally threatens a particular section of your readership,” Wilby writes. “Some black or Jewish people will be genuinely frightened — as opposed to merely indignant — if they see an ad for the BNP or Irving’s books in their favourite paper”
But of course it’s a contentious issue and not everyone agrees that Archant should have turned away the ad.
Charlie Beckett of the Polis journalism thinktank defends the Ham & High’s stance stance on his blog.
“As a journalist I believe that you should report reality and not hide from it,” Beckett writes. “As a liberal I am convinced that the best way to counter illiberal views is to treat them on the same terms as you would other political ideologies.”
Political blog Harry’s Place, meanwhile, writes: “Archant is entitled to take a content-neutral approach to the advertisements that they run. In these circumstances, a decision to run an advert by a fascist party might not be a great business decision, but it doesn’t amount to an endorsement of the party. I’m not massively impressed by the Ham and High taking election adverts from fascists, but it isn’t as bad as giving Nick Griffin a column, or inviting him to participate in a public forum.”
Cardiff blogger Stephen Farrington takes a similar line: “The BNP is a legal political party and the Archant group a private business who may carry whatever advertisements it likes. No laws are being broken, yet some, of the ‘No Platform’ persuasion, seek to make an exception of a party they dislike.”