How a BBC talkback host took on a hateful troll … and taught us all a lesson

Hero of the hour: BBC London talkback host, Simon Lederman. BBC

Radio phone-in shows are major platforms for national conversations. While it’s debatable how much we learn from them, they’re unrivalled as vehicles for the public to let off steam. Rarely, however, is racist, antisemitic, Islamophobic or other hate speech allowed to be heard as callers are usually pre-screened. Some may slink through that filter, but once they start spouting abuse, the presenters promptly cut them off.

It’s hard to say how much the presenters fear giving offence, but they certainly fear the law, which (albeit with little consistency) punishes speech deemed to incite hostilities on racial and other grounds. As it is state-funded, the BBC is expected to uphold not only the letter, but also the spirit of the law. So it was remarkable when, just before Christmas, a caller identifying as “Andy from St Margarets” dialled BBC London, proclaiming: “We are ruled by Zionist Jews.”

Andy’s worldview was vile: “80% of corporate America, of the media”, and therefore – presumably – the whole world, is monopolised “by Jews”, who “control the money”. The call came over as a near textbook specimen of antisemitism.

Give ‘em enough rope

But censoring incendiary speech in public forums is highly questionable, and not only as a matter of principle. States such as Germany and France have long experience of banning hate speech, with little success. This suggests that bans do more to stir up discriminatory attitudes than to defeat them.

Whatever we each may think about censoring hate speech, however, we can surely agree that, once the BBC adopts a rule, it must apply it across the board. If a phone-in bans hateful calls against some vulnerable minority groups, it must ban them against all such groups.

Andy’s views became clear early on. So why didn’t the presenter, Simon Lederman, disconnect him? Lederman instead gave Andy a whopping 13 minutes – more than veteran journalists are often allotted to cover vital and complex stories.

The incident went unnoticed, except by a few Jewish media watchdogs. For example, the Get the Trolls Out organisation, which seeks to combat media antisemitism, filed a complaint. However, while some reports accurately quoted Andy and did include the audio link to the full original conversation, most of them provided limited context, giving the impression that Andy had been given carte blanche to rail against Jews.

In fact, Lederman challenged Andy relentlessly. He sabotaged Andy’s every effort to launch into a monologue, instead forcing Andy to justify each and every allegation. And to give the BBC its due, it stressed this fact in its defence of the complaint.

Andy failed, of course – expressing increasing exasperation as the conversation wore on. Far from granting an open platform to a hate monger, Lederman allowed Andy a generous portion of rope with which to hang himself. By the end, Lederman had paraded Andy – or rather, Andy had paraded himself – as a first-class nincompoop.

BBC in a bind

Denmark’s anti-discrimination laws are at least as strict as Britain’s. In the 1990s, however, the European Court of Human Rights sided with the makers of a documentary in which Danish white supremacist group “the Green Jackets” uttered the crudest of racist remarks. For the court, that journalistic framework provided sufficient context to distinguish it from straightforward hate speech. And yet in the documentary, Green Jacket members had railed with less interruption and at greater length than Andy got from Lederman.

Lederman made the harder choice, but the better one. Showing-up conspiracy theorists can be tricky. They’re nincompoops, but not idiots. While most thinking people spend their days trying to appreciate the world’s complexity, conspiracy theorists – on both the right and the left – spend their days eliminating complexity, tracing all the world’s problems to some single underlying cause.

For centuries, Jews have been the target for myriad conspiracy theories.

Lederman did the right thing, the more honest thing. But that leaves the BBC in a bind. Either Lederman’s choice is right because the BBC’s policy on hate speech is untenable, or it’s wrong because that untenable policy must still be applied. Neither of these propositions particularly flatters the BBC. The censorship, in either case, proves flawed in principle and arbitrary in practice.

Confront hate speech

Haven’t we seen this all before? Less than a century ago, anti-Semitism was given free rein – and it ended in atrocities which some hateful individuals still spend half their time denying and the other half celebrating.

Yet the mostly “on paper” democracies in which hate speech directly led to hate crimes do not even remotely resemble today’s Western democracies. Over decades, sociologists and criminologists have continually failed to document any statistical link between hate speech and the kinds of horrors it sparks in newer or less established democracies, such as Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia. In its report: Hate Speech and Group-Targeted Violence, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum says there is: “There is no direct, incontrovertible evidence linking hate speech or propaganda to violence.”

It’s time for British law to abolish all crimes of opinion within forums dedicated to the general airing of public views. The BBC must lead that effort. Media silencing and sidestepping don’t combat hate speech. They only vindicate the conspiracy theories which insist that free speech is granted to some but denied to others.

BBC presenters must follow Lederman’s example. They must defy prevailing law and policy if necessary. They must stop tiptoeing around the extremists. They must instead sharpen their skills and learn to tackle and expose the fears and lies that nourish bigotry.