Dealing with the devil
14 Apr 2008

BNP advertShould publications only run ads that match their principles, asks Peter Wilby

Many readers and some journalists believe editors should apply the same principles to advertising as they do to editorial copy. If an ad is violently at variance with the publication’s philosophy, they think, it should be spiked. So when I was editor of the New Statesman (1998-2005), I received frequent complaints about our accepting ads from, for example, arms manufacturers, tobacco companies, nuclear power firms, and fast, child-maiming, planet-polluting cars.

In reply, I would make several points. First, if we didn’t accept what little advertising was available to a magazine of 25,000 circulation, the impoverished New Statesman wouldn’t exist at all. Our right-wing rival, the Spectator, which appeared to think smoking, nuclear power and driving at 120mph guaranteed long life and eternal health, would be strengthened. Second, if an arms company wanted to help finance a magazine that was vehemently opposed to arms sales, why should I object? Third, it was in editorial’s interests to maintain a wall between itself and advertising. I would never trim an editorial line, or pull an article, to please an advertiser, nor would the advertising department ask me to. Equally, I wouldn’t interfere in advertising’s affairs. Fourth, providing advertisers’ activities were legal and their copy was not indecent, offensive or libellous, they were entitled to their say. To refuse an advertisement because I disliked what it was selling or the opinions it represented would be an act of censorship.

So what would I have done about an ad from the far-right British National Party, with its history of racism and anti-Semitism? This dilemma faced Geoff Martin, editor of the Hampstead & Highgate Express — which serves an area with a large Jewish population — in the run-up to the London mayoral elections. Despite protests from journalists, readers and local councillors, one of whom denounced him for the ‘shameless pursuit of profit over principle’, Martin accepted a BNP ad. However, the editor of the Hackney Gazette, part of the same group, Archant, and serving an area with a large black population, had apparently refused it. ‘The BNP,’ Martin wrote in a column in the same issue, ‘is a legally constituted political party. . . to tolerate those we vehemently disagree with is the hallmark of a truly open, egalitarian and democratic society.’

The BNP never tried to advertise in the NS. However, David Irving, the notorious Holocaust doubter, did. That, I think, was the only time I suppressed an ad, except on legal or decency grounds. For special reasons, it was a no-brainer. The NS had recently run a cover that was widely interpreted as anti-Semitic. There was no anti-Semitic intent and I had apologised, at length, for a gross error of judgment. But I had no wish to re-open the issue and give further ammunition to our critics. Carrying this ad, I judged, would seriously damage the NS brand and outweigh the benefits of Irving being willing to pay the maximum rate.

It was still censorship, though, and I felt a tad uneasy about my decision. Irving’s ad (for one of his books) was not, as I recall, offensive in itself. Nor was the Ham & High‘s BNP ad, which showed a happy family with three children under the headline ‘People like you voting BNP’. Perhaps I should have done what Martin did: accept the ad, but write a column denouncing what it stood for. But what if Irving had offered his ad again? Would the NS have been running anti-Irving leaders week after week?

Anything to do with race — and the BNP argues that it is against immigration, but not against ethnic minorities — falls into a special category. Racism (including Islamophobia) is peculiarly repugnant because it attacks people at the core of their identity, an identity that cannot easily be altered or hidden as political opinions can. An advertisement from an arms company may try to sell something that leads to death and destruction, but it does not promote anything that personally threatens a particular section of your readership. Some black or Jewish people will be genuinely frightened — as opposed to merely indignant — if they see an ad for the BNP or Irving’s books in their favourite paper. Their friends, they may feel, have deserted them. People who wish them serious harm are being given respectability.

That is what makes such ads so difficult for editors to call. The most central principles for any liberal society — freedom of speech and opposition to racism — come into direct conflict. Martin resolved it one way, I in another. At least, as an ex-editor, I don’t have to make such decisions any more.

One response to “Dealing with the devil”

  1. […] In the Index on Censorship, Peter Wilby recalls facing similar dilemmas as editor of the New Statesman when he was sometimes criticised for taking advertisements from arms manufacturers. He seems to come down against the Ham & High decision as well, arguing that anything to do with race falls into a special category. […]