THE BATTLE FOR BARKING (MORE 4 30/11/2010) REVIEWED

INTRODUCTION

This site, and the magazine we represent, have long been critical both of the British National Party (BNP) and the poor state of TV documentaries. Natural therefore, that we should have an opinion on a TV documentary covering the BNP in one of the 2010 UK General Election's most bitter fights--the struggle between the BNP & New Labour in Barking & Dagenham (East London). Elsewhere on this site we have outlined a strategy to counter the BNP, both generally and in Barking & Dagenham specifically (two separate articles, Anti-Fascism section). As time permits we will update the article on Barking/Dagenham which was written before the election--and in Notes From the Borderland issue 10 (forthcoming) will cover recent/current events in the BNP, just as issue 9 covered their 2009 European Parliament election campaign (and success). Visit the shop (accessible from the home page) for details of how to get these two publications. For now, look at this immediate reaction to the More 4 documentary. Quick, but hopefully considered--read it. 1/12/10

THE BATTLE FOR BARKING (MORE 4 30/11/2010)--A NEW DEPARTURE IN TV DOCUMENTARIES & IF SO, FOR THE BETTER? by Larry O'Hara

Elsewhere on this site, and in Notes From the Borderland magazine (especially issue 6), we have been highly critical of the generally dire standard of TV documentaries, especially those covering fascism, a true nadir of which was the Searchlight/BBC documentary 'Secret Agent' screened in 2004, that inestimably boosted the BNP, along the way hyping various agents provocateur like Andy Sykes & Jason Gwynne. It is refreshing on balance (criticisms later) to see something on the serious & emotive subject of the BNP vs New Labour 'battle for Barking' in the recent General Election that does not belong to this already-tainted stable. Produced & directed by Laura Fairrie, with assistance from veteran Executive Producer Christopher Hird, the method was both simple and potentially tricky, given mutual antagonism--gain access to both Labour & BNP campaigns, over a one year period leading up to the May 2010 vote, and then show the mood in both camps in chronological order. Fairrie went further than that though, in exploring (uncensored) some motivations behind both BNP activists and voters. While some voters were undoubtedly committed party supporters, not all were--in one striking scene, having witnessed one positive & one negative response to canvassers, Fairrie went back to each household and encouraged the occupants to expand their sentiments. Having heard on the grapevine that the Searchlight organisation are not too pleased with Ms Fairrie, we decided to wait & see what came out.

Evaluation of this documentary has to operate on two levels--the actual content, and also the specific form it took, that of the non-participant but overt observer. Content can be divided into three areas: how the BNP and its activists were portrayed, how Labour was depicted, and how ordinary voters/residents came across, whether anti-BNP or not. While other parties stood in the election, it was generally polarised into a Griffin vs Hodge contest (the Liberal Democrat George Carman's candidature was decidedly anti-Griffin), thus (despite the Tories coming second) the film's focus was valid. In vain did I urge members in my own party (the Greens) outside the area to take an interest--even the 'Green Left' lined up behind Hodge, presenting no positive alternative. So, a viable perspective from Ms Fairrie here.

HOW THE BNP WAS PORTRAYED

Fairrie gained the confidence of leading BNP members, with fruitful results. Griffin was shown for what he is--both racially prejudiced and articulate. Some of what he says would make sense to disaffected working class whites--soldiers being 'conscripts of poverty', arguing against the war in Afghanistan & so forth. Hodge accurately described a BNP Election Broadcast she had just seen as "repulsive but clever". Nowhere was Griffin's articulacy & prejudice shown more than his response to the question about the positive effects of immigration that the only one he could think of was a "wider range of takeaway food", though this was not something to "give up your country for". Cleverly accepting an undeniable fact (about food) and then adding a racist footnote (about freedom). That the BNP's core politics are race and not mere 'cultural difference' was illustrated by his earlier comment that "statistics and observation show the native people on these islands are going to be a minority within the life time of children born now". As too his rejoinder to Labour activists at the count that "you mobilised the black vote very well indeed". Unlike some, I have never doubted Griffin's humanity, so the fact he is shown being visibly shaken after one physical confrontation is no surprise, although the tears trickling down his face after adoption as candidate while highly probably those of a crocodile (or onion-induced) are not demonstrably shown to be so--that would have required more context, which this film is weak on. Just to show that given the chance Griffin can be as cynical as anybody, the BNP meeting where he seemed to put public pressure on Andy Kinggett, the father of rifleman Martin Kinggett, just killed in Afghanistan, to allow the BNP to make political capital out of the affair sticks in the craw. This applies whether the situation was created in advance for the camera, or genuinely shown as it happened--either illustrates how cynical Griffin really is. But we knew that already, didn't we? While opinions may differ, overall Griffin didn't come across that badly--in part because some confrontations took place elsewhere/later (eg Peter Tatchell memorably ambushing a flummoxed Griffin at Millbank TV studios 22/7/10), but also because Griffin is more agile intellectually than most opponents give him credit for. Another factor was that Fairrie never put him under any pressure to explain the political skeletons in his cupboard, so Griffin didn't raise them. Also, as challenger, rather than incumbent, he had no governmental policies to defend, unlike Hodge, While the mere fact of expressing racist views would be anathema to many, such people are not those Griffin appeals to, or wants to court. Condemnation from Guardianistas is neither here nor there for Griffin, and it is on the basis of how Griffin might have appeared to potential supporters, rather than die-hard opponents, that I judge his performance.

Some other members shown were equally intriguing. Lawrence Rustem really is a careful but angry young man. His considered answers to Fairrie's questions were thoughtful, especially the claim to have been radicalised by being mugged. Initially wary of Fairrie, chiding her for filming an activist without permission--as time goes by, he loosens up his attitude towards her, and as such his deeply-held general anger bubbles to the surface. The bumbling cartoon-Italian figure of Guiseppe Di Santis flits into view, sticking like a limpet (just like you would expect an infiltrator/asset like he surely is to do) to Bob Bailey, on whom see below. Richard Barnbrook, Greater London Assembly member, guests as a slightly theatrical figure, the vapidity of his political vision only too evident--"turning the clock back thirty years, bringing back family values, a sense of belonging". Thirty years ago (and I remember!) Britain was ravaged by political & industrial conflict, economic disintegration and so forth--a golden age it was (not).

The piece de resistance as regards the BNP members was London organiser Councillor Bob Bailey, a cockney wide-boy not afraid to mix it. His patently unreconstructed racist views (one aside talks of 'Ali Baba' country) make him a camera natural. In a memorable scene, Griffin describes Barnbrook as an 'artist' (which the uncharitable would prefix with the word piss) and as for Bailey, Griffin struggled initially, eventually describing him as a 'details man' who gets things done. In a crucial passage that evinces Fairrie's integrity as a film-maker, she shows two related scenes that quickly followed each other:somebody less scrupulous might have omitted the former. In the first scene, local youths are shown verbally abusing Griffin and his team, one stating "fuck off you piece of shit, I'm going to kill you". At this point, the BNP retreat, however a short while later the group catches them up. Having been pursued, Bailey is spat at by one youth--at that point, he loses it, and vigorously attacks the perpetrator, up to and including kicking his head while on the floor. An instance of BNP thuggery--but by showing the lead up to it, Fairrie conveys the way (in this case at least) Bailey was provoked. As such, although reprehensible, his behaviour is understandable--in a way the snippet of this incident viewed by upwards of half a million people on You-Tube does not convey. That charges were brought against Bailey (and his antagonists) but later dropped, is not mentioned.

The image whereby some members see the BNP as a 'family' is seemingly bought into by Fairrie, Rustem shown talking of BNP "camraderie". This allows Griffin the unexpectedly easy propaganda point of opining he has "a huge responsibility to be in the position where people look up to you...a person they love, who mustn't let you down". Given the frequent and increasing numbers of members Griffin has over the years expelled from this ' family' that rings especially hollow...Returning to the BNP as a whole, the film might unintentionally give viewers an impression they had a huge presence--lots of billboards & advertising truck shots, as too some well-produced leaflets and quite a few street stalls. Only on reflection do you realise the BNP are shown addressing no meetings other than their own, unlike Hodge, seen addressing both a local church and mosque. Opposition on the streets from locals was a constant feature, leavened by some individual BNP supporters. There was the odd bit of humour--provided by the implausibly-attired black BNP member Pastor James Gilou, whose strange demeanour was only trumped by the even more bizarre 'Reverend' Robert West: Judging by the bemused expression on Griffin's face when encountering Gilou especially, he might well have shared Wellington's sentiments before Waterloo regarding British soldiers "I don't know what you do to the enemy, but by God you frighten me".

THE DEPICTION OF HODGE/NEW LABOUR

Fairrie did not set out, on the basis of this film, to do a pro New Labour hatchet-job, or if she did, that isn't what ensues. Hodge's humanity is shown well in evident grief at the loss of her husband during the campaign, and the tears regarding that (unlike Griffin's on his adoption) were palpably genuine. That said, Hodge's hypocritical and evasive politics comes across clearly, disturbingly so. One instance was particularly choice, where she sought to harangue a mixed race couple into voting Labour, telling the (white) husband he should do so for his wife, concluding with "hold your nose and vote Labour, this once". How politically bankrupt, that after 13 years of New Labour, this was the best she could come up with. Then there was the photo-opportunity visit to a site where 17 council houses were being built--she had to remove her (Jimmy Choo--of course) shoes before entering the muddy plot complaining "nobody told me I couldn't wear these shoes", topped by her riposte to a builder when leaving who had suggested more houses and that it's a "shame you can't be more radical"--"I agree". What barefaced cheek from this New Labour apparatchik, who voted for every reactionary & war-mongering policy on offer, never hinting at a vestige of radicalism in office. This type quite rightly gives politicians of all stripes a bad name. Her aloofness from elector's real concerns further illustrated by Hodge's statement that "if they talk about housing its code for immigration"--sometimes it certainly is, but on other occasions it is, quite legitimately, a concern about housing itself, plain and simple. Housing that New Labour, both nationally & locally, have/had no intention of providing in the recent past or foreseeable future. Speaking at a local Christian fundamentalist church with a congregation of substantially Afro-Caribbean descent, Hodge is shown orating that the BNP want "everyone who is sitting in this room to be expelled from this country, dropped from an aeroplane, dtopped from a helicopter, left in the sea" (presumably without parachutes). Bizarre and absurd in equal measure--BNP racism is palpable enough without such ludicrous allegations. At no point is Hodge ever shown as somebody interested in addressing the issues, rather than primarily engaging in negative campigning against the BNP. Unless you count her comments on housing--and the admission "I'm never going to beat him on immigration", while true, isn't exactly addressing an issue. Hodge's most telling evasiveness came in an exchange with a BNP supporter as she was getting into a 4x4 vehicle. He upbraided her for being a millionairess, one of those "thieving MPs" and having ignored paedophiles (an obvious reference to her tenure at Islington Council where she disgracefully swept allegations of child abuse in council-run children's homes under the carpet). Her response was to ignore these points, but to say "and you dislike me because I'm Jewish". As a BNP activist, he may well have been anti-semitic, so she might have a point--however (unlike him as far as I could see) Hodge deliberately racialised the encounter (as with the mixed-race couple earlier) to avoid addressing the arguments.

Even aside from her bereavement, Hodge isn't shown entirely negatively. One relevant sub-text, which goes a long way to explaining her success, was the extent to which the Labour Party nationally stepped in to help. Immediately after Griffin's candidature was announced, she is in a taxi on her mobile asking for "big donors"--the word 50 (or perhaps 150?) is mentioned, which I don't take to be merely pounds, most likely far larger. One for the Electoral Registration Officer perhaps, alomg with Griffin's full spending from candidacy to polling day? Old & New Labour luminaries John Prescott & Ed Miliband press the flesh, and to be fair Hodge herself is shown as indefatigable in terms of trudging the streets knocking on doors, making cold calls and all in all attempting to engage with voters, however evasive she was on the issues. She had statistical justification--extensive opinion-polling on behalf of Labour in various wards showed a frightening degree of latent BNP support--over 70% in some, and also that her personal vote was higher than that of the Labour Party itself. This led to the decision to play up the candidate & play down the party. Understandable & effective--but only in the short term of course. Hodge does not come across as stupid, far from it, as her astute comments on the BNP broadcast showed. However overall the abiding impression is of a typically blustering & dishonest New Labour veteran--exactly what she is. Although portrayed at times as an underdog, perhaps the weight of representing a fading and patently unpopular New Labour regime nationally permeated her behaviour: Hodge was not to know the full extent of her victory until polling night (16,000 majority over her nearest Tory rival). Needless to say, the scale of that victory does not make Hodge more palatable close up--she appears on screen for what she is. To committed Labour supporters, she probably came across well--to the 70% latent BNP supporters in target wards, I am not convinced her performance was good enough, certainly in the medium to long term. While perhaps an unintended consequence, Hodge was a living personification of just why many ex-Labour voters have gone over to the BNP, and as such her time on screen conveyed more eloquently than the BNP themselves reasons for their support.

LOCAL VOTERS

It is not always clear whether voters shown as BNP supporters were not activists, or related, which is troubling. For example, immediately after Hodge's dismissive comments on housing being code for immigration, we are taken into the flat of local resident Michelle Hill, who spoke of being stuck in her block for 17 years while members of ethnic minorities stayed for 6 months and then got a house. Evaluating the truth of this must in part hinge on how the film-maker came across her: on the street, in a housing office--or via the BNP. I do not know which: but a pertinent question, as too in the case of one idiosyncratic old cove shown strolling round his back-garden orchard muttering that at least his neighbours were white. On polling day, after attacking the Sun's support for David Cameron, he appears to confide for the first time, seconds before entering the polling station, that he will in fact vote BNP. The strong suspicion has to be this was already known by the film crew, hence the second (and perhaps the first) encounter was contrived. This would be a shame, because there are other patently unstaged vox pop cameos where locals express why they are voting BNP. But the whole thing gets you wondering--was the woman who left the cafe while Griffin was eating after declaring her support really a member of the public, or already a BNP activist? Probably not, but this method of filming begs such questions--when in fact as even Labour's own polling showed high latent BNP support, legitimately finding BNP supporters should have been easy. If, and I emphasise if, whether in this scene ot elsewhere, Fairrie used any people provided by the BNP without stating this was so, what might have seemed an acceptable short-cut at the time will rebound against both her & the film, and distract attention from the important and salient issues illustrated as regards housing and so on. The verbal hostility & abuse Griffin encountered on the streets was marked--although Fairrie does not deal with (in this format cannot) whether her filming made confrontation more rather than less likely. Griffin was already a demonised figure--one poster from Searchlight front group 'Hope Not Hate' seemed to copy a classic Nazi one showing a shadowy Nick Griffin towering over Barking Town Hall for instance--but might not the overt presence of a camera crew have inspired some local residents to 'up the ante' and get physical? Maybe, maybe not--certainly an appropriate question. Even if the reasons for anger against the BNP are understandable (which they are) the level of verbal aggression directed at them would hardly dissuade any supporters watching that the party is not in fact a beleaguered organisation--and as such, would do nothing to undercut BNP support, locally or nationally. Which raises the question: was the film format adequate, or even amenable, to such a purpose?

REALISM AS A DOCUMENTARY FORM?

It must be said straight away there are advantages to this format. By 'embedding' herself in both camps, Fairrie unquestionably gained unparalleled access, and the results make for compelling viewing. If she had filmed the BNP alone, Fairrie would have been accused (and no doubt will be anyway from disgruntled quarters already mentioned) of giving the BNP 'air-time', and not countering arguments, or fully explaining their fascist politics. In a way, extensive input from the Hodge camp doesn't entirely negate that criticism. By embedding so thoroughly within both operations, in order to remain there and retain access, Fairrie could not afford to alienate either side by asking hard questions. For example, while Griffin certainly has answers, his past conviction for Holocaust Denial concerning an article published in Croydon BNPs The Rune (issue 8 1994 p.8-9 for the archivally inclined), or indeed his co-authorship (with Mark Deavin) of 1997 anti-Jewish tract 'Who are the Mind-Benders?' is highly relevant context for Hodge's declaration that one reason he stood against her was Jewishness. Additionally, Richard Barnbrook's contested September 2008 statements about knife crime in Barking & Dagenham were subject to ongoing disciplinary proceedings by both the Council & Greater London Assembly. Although concluded in February 2010 with a decision broadly in Barnbrook's favour, he did admit technical breaches of the elected representatives code of conduct. Even more pertinently, while some glossy BNP propaganda was shown, at no point did Fairrie interrogate the content of such, including the controversial characterisation of a supposed 'Africans For Essex' Labour policy, designed to 'flood' the area. Nor did she ask the excitable Hodge just which aspect of BNP policy involves throwing people out of aeroplanes...Even in terms of questions she did ask, Fairrlie was either not astute enough, or more likely disinclined, to follow through. For instance, the obvious response to Griffin's comment about a "broader range of takeaway food" would be to point out that if it were not for the invaluable (and low-paid) contribution of many overseas workers, the NHS the BNP professes to love would grind to a halt tomorrow (or even later tonight). Fairrie might rightly object that taking on the BNP ideologically was not her intention--and I accept that does not make her a sympathiser, she patently isn't.

Nonetheless, by giving them an uncritical platform on one level this programme hasn't harmed them fundamentally, despite Fairrie's anti-fascist views. That, however, is as much a function of this form of film as the content--the problem, at 87 minutes running time, certainly wasn't length. If Fairrie had confronted the BNP (and/or New Labour) during filming, access would have been summarily halted. In order to film over the whole year she probably had to bite her lip, frequently. Once set on that (understandable) course of action, to after filming then intersperse/end already filmed scenes with counter-arguments not articulated at the time would rightly undermine her credibility as a film-maker. As a woman largely on her own (with one camera-man only & no obvious back-up), Fairrie was potentially prey to being manipulated in the sense of having scenes contrived for her benefit, and some may have been. Furthermore, the lack of opportunity within this cinema verite style for an authoritative voice-over narrative means context was continually elided. It is highly relevant that the Hodge camp had recently purged Old Labour loyalists, so intent was/is she to make the local party obey her commands. Nothing of this is shown or hinted at--nor did Fairrie question Hodge about her own privileged background, Labour's housing record, or even the Islington Council paedophilia scandal. Definitely off the agenda--but not politically irrelevant. Likewise, the unceremonious indeed ruthless way in which North West MEP Griffin (a Welsh resident to boot) elbowed aside previous candidate Barnbrook to stand himself is not mentioned, even though the crowded post-script refers to Barnbrook plotting against Griffin. These omissions are not accidental, but fundamental to the methodology of being 'embedded' as Fairrie was.

Another format weakness is the inability--as with much TV but amplified here--to adequately explore complex ideas, such as the nature of Nazism/whether the BNP are Nazi. That too, requires context--not just individual {'my dad fought in the war') but historical & ideological. As I have remarked before, BNP use of Churchillian imagery to pre-empt the Nazi label was deft strategically--and yet though shown here (on the broadcast) was not explained, or analysed. Nor did the format easily allow it to be.

With the verite method we are not told what is missing from the finished product, or why it is missing--the flip-side of some aspects being potentially staged. The precise ground-rules set by both Hodge and Griffin for co-operation are surely crucial--yet not referred to directly. Implicitly, speaking to a hand-held camera equalises the importance of contributors in a way that might not reflect reality. The most important people may not even be shown, or others appearing (like Hodge's affable constituency secretary) might not be as important as viewers could be forgiven for thinking they are. Others whose views might be important (such as Unite Against Fascism protesters) were merely filmed on a number of occasions chanting. Maybe chants are the most serious thing UAF could have offered--but it would have been nice to allow the viewer to decide that themselves, as the UAF contingent were at least as committed as New Labour/the BNP. While not needing to be drowned in such, few situations/historical processes cannot to some extent be illuminated by outside and even retrospective analytical commentary--yet such this film did not have. It did, however, have rather jarring music, at times almost comical in its subliminal tugging at our emotions. What was all that about, cinematically?

You might think from the foregoing that on balance criticisms of the film outweigh aspects I liked. Not so--the film has to looked at in context. On the one hand, virtually all documentaries on the BNP in recent times have been atrocious shabby productions often pushing secret state sponsored agendas, showing little or no understanding of why anybody, anywhere, might ever vote BNP. Not only does Fairrie's film conform to no readily-discernible dodgy agenda, she shows to a considerable extent some reasons why the BNP resonates with sections of the alienated white working class. That, in comparison to what has gone before, is a signal breakthrough, for which Fairrie & Hird deserve praise. On the other hand, if, and it's a big if, the only kind of documentary that can be made from now on about a group like the BNP is this one kind, 'non-participatory passive observation', that would be bad news indeed. It might however, and this worries me, fit the You-Tube generation perfectly--all immediacy & no context, as well as being rather cheap to make. Taken at face value, after all, 'The Battle of Barking' consists of a few dozen sequenced You-Tube style videos, largely orchestrated/approved by the participants, with captions tagged on every now and then. In fact, the situation is rather more complex than that--but the potential danger is there of ceding control to those filmed. That said, as long as this kind of product is supplemented by traditional proper documentaries, freed from the dead hand of state agendas/provocateur tactics, and albeit drastically improved in quality, we have to welcome Fairrie's contribution. She is aware of the continuing BNP threat in the area "they are out leafletting and door-knocking and there's still that sense of unhappiness. I don't think the problems have gone away" (quoted in Guardian on-line 30/11/10). She's certainly right there--and though the film provides no direct pointers as to how to confront the BNP in a positive way that permanently undercuts their support, that is not something for a film-maker to do alone. To answer the questions posed in this article's title: does this documentary signify a new departure? Maybe. Is it a turn for the better? Depends on what else comes along, both from Dartmouth Films/Fairrie and other quarters. We shall see...

Click here for free access to O'Hara PhD on UK fascism

Contact Address

BM Box 4769
London
United Kingdom
WC1N 3XX

Phone: +44 7775 964367

Email: nfbmagazine@yahoo.co.uk

About NFB Magazine

Welcome to Britain's premier parapolitical investigative magazine Notes from the Borderland (NFB). We have been producing the magazine since 1997 but some published material before then.

Our political perspective is Left/Green, but we welcome truth-tellers, whatever their affiliation. Research interests include the secret state (MI5/MI6/Special Branch, now SO15) & their assets, including those in the media. We are resolutely anti-fascist, and to that end investigate the far right and state infiltration of various milieus. In a shallow age where many TV programmes and print/internet stories are spoon-fed to servile journalists/bloggers by shadowy interests, NFB stands out as genuine investigative research. 

Take a chance--you won't be disappointed...

To republish anything on this site contact us first  for permission - we will usually grant it for non-profit organisations, other requests will be looked at on a case by case basis.   "Quotation is fine, plagiarism isn't" (Agent Q RIP).