Covering the Far Right in Europe – report

The NUJ Brussels conference “Covering the Far Right in Europe” on 29 September 2009 in the Brussels International Press Centre tackled an issue troubling many journalists today – how to report political views that many consider anathema. The context is the move in recent years of the extreme right from the political fringes to representation in the European Parliament.

That while politicians of such stripe may be reprehensible, they have been elected, is the dilemma facing journalists today. Much of the rhetoric being bandied about is anti-foreigner and anti-immigrant – at times racism and xenophobia appear to take over from reasoned discussion. In a time of darkening public mood, what can we do?

Challenge the statements made

Former President of the NUJ Tim Lezard said that the NUJ has strong views on the reporting of the BNP (British National Party) and similar fascist parties. “Do they have a right to be heard on programmes like Question Time?” he asked. He didn’t think so, he said, pointing out that this is a party that has a history of threatening those who disagree with it, using intimidating phone calls, threatening behaviour and outright violence against journalists that it dislikes.

The BNP has even stated that the mass media should pay the ultimate penalty for our present multi-racial society, he said. Emphasising that this is not the behaviour of a respectable political party, he said that free speech brings responsibility, and if groups advocate violence in support of their aims, then they abnegate their right to free speech.

Yet, he said, ignoring such politicians shows a lack of respect for the communities that voted for them. The best way to report them therefore is to challenge every statement they make, because many of their statements will not stand up factually. “We need to show them up for what they are,” he said.

The NUJ itself would shortly be setting up a new website on reporting the BNP, to help reporters cover what is happening in their communities. The site would be an information source and possibly a help to journalists in other countries facing similar difficulties.

Expose the political links
Alberto D’Argenzio, correspondent for Il Manifesto, described the different polities of the extreme right in Italy. Such groups are politically strong in northern Italy, he said, and could field large numbers of young people in the streets, often linked to football support. Yet, he said, a documentary made about the extreme right could not be shown anywhere in the country.

He blamed the tight control over the media held by Silvio Berlusconi and his political cronies. Two cinemas that had attempted to show the documentary were subject both to legal attacks and physical threats, he said. Although there were other reasons as well, he admitted, not least an apparently growing xenophobia within the country.

He also pointed to a network of suspected links between the extreme right, certain politicians and media barons, extending even to the mafia, drug trafficking and the arms trade. These links, based on money and personal relationships, often went so deep, he said, that journalists found it near to impossible to break through them and find out the truth.

Don’t give extremists a platform
Geert Cools, for the Vlaams Belang (VB) monitoring group Blokbluster, said journalists need to understand why extreme right parties have electoral support. People often did so out of fear about what was happening in their immediate community, he said, rather than because they supported the aims of a neo-fascist organisation.

The VB is dangerous because it has direct links back to the Nazis in World War II, and still stands on a traditional Fascist programme, he said. Yet it is not able to mobilise the big street demonstrations of those times, he noted, which was surprising considering it is now the third party in Flanders with some 15% of the vote.

He warned of the group’s violent cadre, saying his organisation had experienced direct physical attacks. The VB is cautious however, he stated, knowing that the electorate would not support active street violence.

His organisation’s approach is to be careful not to join in debates that would give the VB a platform. He admitted it is becoming more difficult for journalists in Flanders. One journalist who used to investigate the far right for De Morgen now has to work as a freelance in this area.

Journalists have a right to question

General Secretary of the IFJ and moderator Aidan White summed up the mood of the meeting, acknowledging that it is difficult for journalists to tackle stories that can directly affect their income. Yet, he said, with the rise of populist, extremist and racist policies the question we should be asking ourselves as journalists is, “Should it be right in my reporting to have these questions asked?”

He restated that is the journalist’s right to be able to report fairly, to report accurately, and to put any claims made into their context. “Journalists should have the confidence and the freedom to take such decisions,” he said. “Without suffering discrimination, without losing their job or work, and without suffering violence.”

© Philip Hunt 2009