Why Nick Griffin and Mark Collett won - and truth lost
I was in Leeds on the first day of the trial of Nick Griffin. Outside the court, there was a demonstration, called by Yorkshire and Humberside TUC and Unite Against Fascism. I would estimate that around 600 people were there for all or some of the day (although numbers had fallen to around half that by the end); the BNP contingent was smaller, but coming largely from out of Leeds fluctuated less. There were never less than 100 of them, and never more than 150. I had the pleasure of speaking at the TUC rally afterwards. I've put the text of my speech below:
Friends, other people can speak about why the British National Party represents a threat to our democracy, and a threat to social democratic in Britain: a threat to our unions, a threat to our hospitals, a threat to our schools. I want to speak about something much narrower, Nick Griffin, the man who is in court today. You'll know that Griffin went to private school and Cambridge University. There, he studied law: I guess he'll need it. Griffin left with the worst degree that his university could award, short of actually failing him.
Since then, Griffin has been a member of a number of neo-Nazi parties, the National Front, the Third Position and now the BNP. He has been the British representative of the terrorist Robert Fiore, the French fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen, and the Libyan leader Colonel Gaddaffi. Not all these ventures were successful. We know about Griffin's notorious trips to Libya. Expecting to be paid, of course, Griffin returned with nothing other than a case full of Gaddaffi's Green Books. For the next two years, he was selling them everywhere to make a living.
Nick Griffin is charged today with using words or behaviour intended or likely to stir up racial hatred. He's been here before. In 1998, he published a magazine which denied that the Holocaust had happened and argued that every newspaper in Britain was owned by Jews. For that, he was given a suspended sentence. Lee Barnes of the British National Party suggests that criminals convicted of drugs offences three times should be subject to the death penalty. What would happen if that policy was extended to all criminal convictions? I'd like to see Barnes tell Griffin: that's two strikes Nick. If we mean what we say, then three and you're out.
Violence has been a constant theme of the BNP for years. There's Griffin who used to boast about how the BNP was 'a strong, disciplined organisation … with well-directed boots and fists' . There's the former BNP bodyguard David Copeland who went on a bombing spree in London. There's the other BNP bomber Tony Lecomber.
That's history, the BNP says, ancient history. Don't believe them.
Our message to Nick Griffin and the BNP is simple. We are here to expose you for the fascists you are. We will continue to expose you. And we will never give up.
I've jotted down a few thoughts on why I think the jury in Leeds acquitted Nick Griffin and Mark Collett.
I only spent a brief period in the court, but I think there are some useful points to be drawn out for future occasions when anti-fascists come into contact with the law. This is especially important if, as now seems likely, the Crown Prosecution Service insists on a retrial of those charges remaining where the jury failed to reach a decision.
First of all, it's worth remembering why Griffin and Collett were in court. Following various speeches made in Bradford in early 2004, they were charged with various counts of using words or behaviour intended to stir up racial hatred. John Tyndall, the founder of the BNP, was also charged, but died before reaching trial. Some of the various quotes from the original speeches have received wide coverage in the press, including Griffin's claim that the Koran sanctions mass rapes against white women, or Collett's fantasies that Asian Britain was about to rise up and slaughter the white majority – 'there won't be a Britain', Collett had predicted, if immigration continued. It was 'the beginning of the end of the white race'. He described asylum seekers as 'cockroaches'. One of his speeches had seen Collett declare 'We're not going to push them around', and a voice respond, 'twat some Pakis'. Another speech had ended with the phrase, 'Let's shows these ethnics the door in 2004.'
The question before the jury was this: was the tenor of the original speeches abusive or insulting, was the intention to stir up racial hatred, or were the speakers reckless that this could be their effect? Collett and Griffin responded in various fashions. They accepted that they and their party had been racist in the past, but denied that they were still. They claimed that their speeches had been truthful and fair, Collett insisting that he had been '100% factual', 'I believe the truth of what I said'. They accepted making attacks on some Asians, on Islam, but insisted that their real target had been Asian criminals or Islam, not Muslims. They tried to turn the case towards the government, accusing Labour or the courts of seeking to ban free speech.
In court, the prosecution had little difficulty in showing that several of these claims were pure fantasy. Collett had said that he was against only Asian criminals. But he had also quoted a letter in one of his speeches, purportedly sent by an ordinary Asian man in Blackburn, 'we know we're not welcome here'. When Collett had read out that message to his BNP audience, the crowd applauded. They were not clapping because this man was a criminal, but because they thought with his departure they would be closer to their goal of an all-white Britain. In another speech, Collett had maintained that at the time of the Bradford riots; there had been a mosque in whose basement there was a shooting range on which terrorists practised with AK-47s. He produced no real evidence, in court, to substantiate this ludicrous claim. The point of Collett's speeches had evidently been to stir up hatred. When Griffin had shared platforms with him, he had made no attempt to distinguish his position from Collett's, but had added his own malicious fantasies about Islam.
In the context, the surprising thing is that neither man
was convicted. To explain that gap, there are three points I want to make. The
first two are very general, the third relates to the specifics of the case.
1) There are many underlying ways in which the British
criminal system is designed to privilege people like Griffin and Collett. The
law has a deep concept of reasonableness, which reflects the collective
interests of the sorts of people who becomes judges. They in turn are still
largely white men in their fifties, people who own some property, who read the
Telegraph or the Times. Behaviour can be judged consistently
according to their test: would a reasonable man approve? Violence is
unreasonable, and strikes are unreasonable. Racism is unreasonable, but so are
protests against racists. Typically, the judge began the case by denouncing
both the BNP and the people demonstrating against them outside the court.
When the counsel for the prosecution was describing his
case, he shaped his idea of what the law allowed and forbade repeatedly
towards this idea of reasonableness. The BNP were right to discuss
immigration, he argued, there were perhaps too many foreigners in Britain.
Many reasonable people disliked asylum seekers. It was a healthy phenomenon
that people could discuss the rights and wrongs of Islam as a religion. The
point he was trying to make was a subtle one, well designed for the
'reasonable man' of the British court system. The prosecution meant to say
that Griffin had overstepped the mark, that he had taken reasonable arguments
to an unreasonable place, that he had been rude, abusive and offensive: this
was his offence. One of the prosecution's key criticisms of the BNP was not
that their anti-asylum message was inherently racist, but that it was
impractical. Here were politicians denouncing refugees, he said, but they
had no policy to explain how the problem of asylum could be dealt with better.
Here, as elsewhere, he seems to be accepting large parts of the BNP case.
For people who live in their own homes, who have the freedom to control their own lives, who vote for David Cameron, this idea that somehow the BNP just takes the right ideas a little bit too far, has real meaning. It's the legal equivalent of the old phrase that Oswald Mosley was the only surviving Englishman to remain 'beyond the pale'. Note that in this definition a worker can't be 'an Englishman', nor can any migrant, first or second generation.
For people who live on estates, whose lives are squashed right on top of each other; the idea that rudeness is criminality makes far less sense. A different prosecutor might have tried to break with the middle-classness of the law, to approach the case in a way that a jury would understand. But for a lawyer to do that requires a real effort of will directed against the logic in which lawyers are trained. The prosecutor in this case didn't even try.
2) Because the law is stacked in many ways against unions and against the left, so when our movements have tried to influence the outcome of a case we have done so by trying to mobilise large numbers of people. Public pressure rarely has a direct effect: many good trade unionists have been sent down despite demonstrations of hundreds of supporters outside the courts. Sometimes, however, pressure does have the right result, especially when it is clear that the public watching the court is all of the same mind. To some extent that very pressure was felt here: were it not for the original 'Secret Agent' programme, Griffin and Collett would never have been in court. Were it not for Unite Against Fascism, the public campaign against the BNP, the general sense that they are a violent set of political extremists, there is no way that the police or the Crown Prosecution Service would have taken action.
During the two weeks of the trial, there were spaces for 35 people in the public gallery. The press normally took 3-4, and sometimes there would be one or two other young people who looked like anti-fascists. For most of the days of the hearings, however, Griffin had family with him, minders, and typically 25-30 BNP supporters in the public gallery. You could see the judge frequently casting his eye upon their ranks: most were men, he saw, few were women, most were in their fifties, few younger. There were so many people with skinhead haircuts and ill-fitting C+A suits. In court, and misleadingly, it often seemed that the BNP had turned out, and anti-fascists didn't.
To really put pressure on the court; we would have needed
to convince even large numbers of people than we did to demonstrate outside.
3) Inside the court, the defence seemed more dynamic, the
prosecution too passive. Three small examples just from the final Monday
morning of the trial convey the problem. The previous week had seen both
Collett and Griffin themselves by arguing that all the racist claims they had
made in their speeches had been based on fact. On Monday morning, the defence
team showed up with a bundle of new documents purporting to substantiate this
claim. The prosecution allowed the bundle to go to the jury unchallenged.
Another new document, submitted by the defence, claimed to show that Collett had been speaking the truth when in one of his original speeches he had maintained that white people were ten times more likely to be the victims of race attacks than black people. This document, judging by the way it was described in the court, may have been an article in a BNP or some other right-wing publication, with a loose reference at the end to the British Crime Survey. The prosecution allowed the document to be given to the jury. They did not insist that it could not be sent unless it was shown to be an accurate summary of BCS figures. The prosecution commented on it just one arguing that its figures didn't add up – said exactly that, no more, and moved on.
The worst example that morning of prosecution lethargy was the decision to allow jurors to be shown footage from a Channel 4 film, 'Edge of the City', which purported to show evidence of Asian men grooming young white women for paedophile sex. The prosecution had originally insisted that the film could not be shown, as it had appeared on television long after Collett and Griffin's original speeches: it could not provide context to them. The judge initially agreed. Yet after repeated complaints from the defence, he relented. The prosecution made only the most subdued of protests.
The reason given for this change of heart was that one of Griffin's speeches had contained a vitriolic reference to 'any young Paki street thug'. The defence claimed that Paki was in Bradford a commonplace term for people of Pakistani origin, more often a term of love and never a term of abuse. The defence also claimed that the Channel Four film gave evidence of the word being used by Pakistanis themselves. When the judge finally agreed (with minimal protests from the prosecution) and allowed long parts of the film to be shown to the jury, it had the worst possible effect. Bad enough, there were indeed brief references in it to white women describing their boyfriends as 'Pakis'. Much more significant, however, were the long periods of film showing Asian men with their faces blackened out, the melodramatic music, the shots of white interviewees. The message of the film was conveyed to the jury - that paedophilia is indeed an Asian disease, and that parties such as the BNP were right to point that out. The last words of the film that jurors heard were 'Us Pakis are going to have to watch what we do'. At that moment, if no other, the lethargy of the prosecution seemed to concede the entire case.
The BBC has posted a picture here, which gives a good sense of the size and colour of the anti-fascist demonstration last Monday. The Guardian's coverage, meanwhile, leads with Griffin's attack on the murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence, here.
You can read Dave Renton's website here
> > home page > >