First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has pulled out of an Edinburgh conference after learning that former Trump strategist, Steve Bannon, has been invited to speak.
Bannon, a former White House adviser whose far right political views have been widely condemned, is listed as a speaker at an event in Edinburgh called News Xchange 2018.
Sturgeon was due to open the conference at a reception at the National Museum of Scotland on 13 November 2018, the evening before Bannon is scheduled to speak in the Edinburgh International Conference Centre.
BBC Scotland is described as “co-hosting the event.” The agenda includes a special edition of BBC Question Time, with the BBC’s Sarah Smith lined up to interview Bannon.
A BBC member of staff, Chris Gibson, is also named on the agenda as executive producer of the conference.
A Scottish Government spokesperson told The Ferret: “The First Minister will no longer be participating in this event. Her office was only informed at the end of this week by the BBC of their invitation to Steve Bannon, and her attendance is no longer appropriate on that basis.”
After The Ferret broke the story, Sturgeon tweeted that she “passionately” believed in free speech, but that as a government leader she had to make balanced judgements. “I will not be part of any process that risks legitimising or normalising far right, racist views,” she said.
“I regret that the BBC has put me and others in this position.”
I believe passionately in free speech but as @ScotGovFM I have to make balanced judgments – and I will not be part of any process that risks legitimising or normalising far right, racist views. I regret that the BBC has put me and others in this position. https://t.co/5x1rHZkaR9
— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) October 20, 2018
In a second tweet she strongly criticised the BBC. “The email the BBC sent to my office justifying Bannon’s inclusion described him as a ‘powerful and influential figure…promoting an anti-elite movement’,” she said.
“This kind of language to describe views that many would describe as fascist does seem to me to run the risk of normalisation.”
The email the BBC sent to my office justifying Bannon’s inclusion described him as a ‘powerful and influential figure…promoting an anti-elite movement.’ This kind of language to describe views that many would describe as fascist does seem to me to run the risk of normalisation.
— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) October 20, 2018
Sturgeon is not the only participant to withdraw from the event after organisers announced Bannon’s involvement.
Ash Sarkar, of Novaramedia, was due to be a participant on the special Question Time panel. She said she would withdraw from the event.
“If @NewsXchange are committed to platforming Steve Bannon, then I withdraw from participating in either of my panels at this conference,” she said.
“I won’t be complicit in the normalisation of fascism amongst the chattering classes.”
This is the first I’ve heard of this. If @NewsXchange are committed to platforming Steve Bannon, then I withdraw from participating in either of my panels at this conference.
I won’t be complicit in the normalisation of fascism amongst the chattering classes. https://t.co/WYr6EU1KTj
— Ash Sarkar (@AyoCaesar) October 19, 2018
Bannon was the driving force behind the right-wing Breitbart News website before emerging as one of the key players in Donald Trump’s rise to power.
He served as chief strategist at the White House, a role that gave him a direct line to President Trump, before he left his post in August 2017.
Since leaving the White House Bannon has visited Europe, offering support to far right parties such as France’s National Front, Alternative for Germany, Austria’s Freedom Party and the Italian League.
In March, Bannon defiantly told a far right crowd in France, “Let them call you racist,” but he has denied being a white supremacist.
In August, he praised Boris Johnson and far right figure Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, aka Tommy Robinson, in the same interview.
The rightwing populist from the US said he admired Johnson and that the former foreign secretary had “nothing to apologise for” after a controversial comments he made over Muslim women wearing full veils.
On Yaxley-Lennon (Robinson), Bannon said: “Tommy is not just a guy but a movement in and of himself now. He represents the working class and channels a lot of the frustration of everyday, blue-collar Britons … He is a force of nature – like Kanye [West] – not built to be managed.”
Yaxley-Lennon co-founded a violent anti-Islam group called the English Defence League. He is a convicted criminal with a history of violence who now refers to himself as a “journalist”.
The agenda for News Exchange 2018 says Bannon is scheduled to speak at the conference in a major slot on 14 November. He is described as a “political strategist” and is due to talk from 11.25am to 11.45am.
His talk will be followed by an interview with the BBC’s Sarah Smith and a question and answer session. Other speakers at the event include Tony Hall, director general of the BBC.
News Xchange’s website says: “We are a two-day, annual conference focusing on bright ideas, opportunities and challenges for the international news industry.
“We bring together 600 plus executives, journalists, presenters, bloggers and start-up entrepreneurs from all around the world to share, learn and cross-pollinate ideas with an array of experts, scientists, artists and thought leaders.
“We are the only conference that aims to remain intimate because we believe in the art of conversation.”
Tickets for the event start at €300 and rise to €1,695, and it has been organised by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU).
Patrick Harvie MSP, of the Scottish Greens, said: “Steve Bannon has been centrally involved in the attempt to re-boot the far right, both in the US and in Europe.
“To normalise such dangerous extremists and give them media platforms of this kind only serves to give them a veneer of legitimacy.
“When the rise of fascism threatens so many people across the world, there must be a clear line drawn between democratic politics and extremism, and the BBC must recognise that line.”
Unite Against Fascism said: “Steve Bannon should not be speaking at this conference. He is not a normal strategist, his stated aim is to build a European wide movement of the far right.
“This is not about freedom of speech. Bannon edited a website which carried the most horrific antisemitic articles.
“Allowing Bannon to speak will not undermine him, instead giving him a platform like this increases his credibility.
“The event organisers should withdraw his invitation to speak right now.”
A spokesperson for the event organisers, EBU, said: “News Xchange is a journalism conference which seeks to explore the main industry trends and challenges delegates to understand the wider political and social context.
“Steve Bannon is a key influencer in the rise of populism – one of the dominant political trends of our times. He has been invited to speak at News Xchange this year because his views are relevant to today’s society at large and therefore to the media industry.
“We also consider it our journalistic responsibility to share and scrutinise a range of relevant viewpoints within the framework of a balanced debate. He will be interviewed about his views by a BBC journalist, followed by an open Q&A with delegates.”
The BBC also issued a statement in response to The Ferret’s story. “News Xchange is an annual EBU journalism conference which the BBC and other broadcasters support to make happen,” it said.
“Steve Bannon was invited on behalf of the EBU’s News Xchange committee. Good journalism in a world of fake news and disinformation is more vital than ever.”
The statement added: “Journalism is about asking tough questions and understanding what is happening in the world and why. A conference designed to analyse the big issues impacting that world isn’t an endorsement of anyone or anything – it is a function of what journalism is.”
Newsxchange 2018 agenda
Photo credit: Michael Vadon | CC | https://flic.kr/p/RdsJbR
This article was updated at 13.52 on 20 October 2018 to add a comment from Unite Against Fascism, and at 18.05 to include a statement from the BBC and comments by Nicola Sturgeon.