It's the questions, not the timing, that gave fascism a platform
Complaints about BBC host Andrew Marr’s interview with Marine Le Pen yesterday focused on whether the leader of the French National Front should be on television on Remembrance Sunday.
But the real problem with Marr’s interview was not the timing, or the fact of its taking place at all, but his questions, which were so soft as to effectively give a platform to fascism. This might sound like a strong charge, but a look at the evidence bears it out.
— The Andrew Marr Show (@MarrShow) November 13, 2016
As if hoping to emulate the failures of the US media in holding Donald Trump to account, Marr’s softballs are a crash course in how not to ask a pointed question.
It’s worth taking a look at them in turn.
Marr began by, in the words of his introduction to the segment, ‘asking Marine Le Pen how she thinks Donald Trump’s victory has changed the world.’ Let’s call this question one.
Already it’s rather generous, handing Le Pen the chance to spin Trump’s victory how she likes. Marr continued:
2. ‘A lot of people have said the victory of Donald Trump makes the victory of Marine Le Pen in the presidential elections in France much likelier. Do you agree with them?’
Again, this is effectively inviting Le Pen to spin the news and make her election pitch, associating herself with a ‘winner’ in another country.
Her actual chances of winning, her opponents in France, (the ruling Socialist Party and the centre-right Republicans), didn’t get a look in, and Marr should have mentioned them.
3. Let me turn to culture, and ask about the Front National, because you had a reputation as a party of being racist, and your own father [Former FN leader Jean-Marie Le Men] used the phrase that the holocaust was an accident, or ‘a detail of history’, he said. Have your really changed as a party?
You have a ‘reputation’ of being racist, have you changed? This is simply an invitation for Le Pen to repeat what she’s done as FN leader: public relations to ‘detoxify her brand’.
Her reply began: ‘Listen, I cannot let you say something so insulting. As a fact, the National Front has never been guilty of racism.’ Marr did not challenge this amazing claim. Instead, he followed up with:
3.5. ‘But that phrase, ‘a detail of history’, about the holocaust, deeply upset and offended many Jewish people, for instance.’
Of all the things Marr could have cited, this is incredibly weak. The fact is, the National Front is born of the tradition of Action Francaise and the Vichy regime that rounded up Jews for the Nazis with zeal. ‘Upset and offence’ about one comment is a pathetic way to grill the leader of a neo-fascist party. And as you can see, this is not even a question.
4. ‘There are millions and millions of Muslim people living in France, who are working hard, contributing to society, obeying the law, and doing their very best to live a good life in France. Can Muslims be good French citizens and be welcome in Marine Le Pen’s France?’
This extraordinary question, which again hands Le Pen the chance to say her usual lines on the matter (we will treat everyone equally if they respect French law and culture, etc.), fails to even reference the FN’s demagogy and racist policies towards Muslims and immigrants, let alone ask about them.
5. ‘Parties of the right, whether they want to or not, tend to attract some pretty extreme people, and the National Front, for instance, has not come into agreement with UKIP in the UK, because the leaders of UKIP regard the French National Front as too hard line on some of these issues.’
Another non-question, another opportunity to build the impression of a united right-populist international. Le Pen even said UKIP has been ‘demonised’ – with no challenge or follow up by Marr.
6. ‘You welcomed Brexit very much, and there’s a poster behind me saying, ‘First Brexit, now France’. But unless you become French president, there’s no chance, is there, of France actually leaving the EU?’
This question could be rephrased: ‘Isn’t it true that if French people want to leave the EU they should vote for the National Front?’ Marr should know the free gift he’s giving Le Pen here, given David Cameron’s re-election in 2015 on the promise of an EU referendum.
7. ‘What kind of relationship would your France have with Britain after Brexit?’
Marr was closer to a real question here, though it contains no specifics, and therefore received none except warm assurances. That and an explicit comparison of countries leaving the EU with the fall of the Berlin Wall, which went unchallenged by Marr.
8. ‘Can you see why some people look at this new Europe, this Europe of free nations, as you say, and they’ve all got borders around themselves, and they’re looking after their own trade and defence interests, and they are worried about this, they say, this is going back to the Europe of the 1930s, and things didn’t go so well then?’
This one is too confused to really bother with. What information was he hoping to gain from asking this? And were borders and protectionism really the main problem in the 1930s?
9. ‘Now, there is one country in Europe which pursuing old-fashioned, strong national interests, and that is Vladimir Putin’s Russia. And at the moment, a lot of people are very worried, by Russian sabre-rattling, by the use of the Russian military, in the Baltics and elsewhere. And yet you’re quite pro- Mr Putin. Can you tell us why we should not be so scared of him?’
Re-read that last line. Why is Marr asking for reassurance, instead of questioning Le Pen’s support for an aggressive dictatorship?
She of course replied, ‘there is no reason to be scared’, which will come as news to people in Ukraine, Georgia, Chechnya and Syria.
10. ‘But, nonetheless, Russia at the moment is intervening quite aggressively, intervened in the American presidential election, is intervening in Italy, there’s a lot of cyber attacks by the Russians, and the Russian banks helped to fund your party as well. Is Russia not trying to destabilise the west in a dangerous way at the moment?’
I leave it to readers to spot how this question could have been made stronger and more direct. I reckon Le Pen spotted it too, since she replied by making excuses about Russian banks – not that Marr especially asked about them.
11. ‘One area where you and Donald Trump have been in agreement is your deep scepticism about NATO, and yet for a lot of people, NATO is the western defence against Russia. How would we be safer without NATO?’
‘How would we be safer without NATO?’ These are not questions. They are cues for Le Pen to recite her talking points. Speaking of which…
12. ‘In this new world of nationalism, how long has this old world got?’
She literally laughed out loud at this one, and said ‘as little as possible’.
13. ‘So, Brexit, Trump, what next?’
I’m not making these up. She replied: ‘Marine Le Pen being elected French president.’
14. ‘So this is a Europe-wide revolution?’
By now she was grinning from ear to ear. ‘It’s a global revolution,’ she said.
End of interview.
For the record, I don’t believe in no-platforming even the most objectionable characters, as protesters outside the BBC yesterday appear to support.
Interviewing a far-right politician on television can be defended on three grounds, it seems to me: 1. to let people hear their views and judge them accordingly, 2. to gain information you couldn’t get otherwise, and 3. to question, challenge and scrutinise their views and politics.
Marr’s interview fails on all three counts. The only news story to come out of this interview was Le Pen’s claim she and UKIP have the same immigration policies. I suspect she’s said this before. We therefore gain no new information, and, as I hope I’ve shown, Le Pen’s views and actions were not questioned, challenged or scrutinised.
It can’t even be said her views were given an airing (point 1), since she was not asked about them in any detail, and superficial questions garner superficial answers.
Marr’s defence of this interview – that Le Pen might be president of France soon – is actually a revealing one, especially paired with this cosy photograph, released by the BBC.
After all, politicians remember who gave them a grilling before the election, and who gave them an easy ride. One can’t say whether it was the spectre of ‘access’ that haunted Marr’s interview, or simply that his edges have been blunted by grovelling sit downs with the Royal Family.
Regardless, his Softballs on Sunday exclusive with Le Pen effectively held a megaphone for a fascist, the better for her to crow about Donald Trump’s election – and the ‘new order’ to come.
If we hope to face down the populist right, we should look to the tools we have – a free media for example – and ask whether we are using them effectively, rather than try to suppress its voices in the name of sensitivity.
Adam Barnett is staff writer for Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter @AdamBarnett13Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.