In his new show Forbidden America, the presenter meets white nationalists, trigger-happy rappers and other inflammatory figures. Here, he argues that, rather than no-platforming them, we need to hear what they say
In 25 years of presenting documentaries, I’ve made it something of a specialty to go to places and listen to people whose views represent something troubling, even dangerous. The first segment I ever made on TV, for Michael Moore’s TV Nation, was about millennial cults and involved a trip to western Montana, where I spoke to two neo-Nazis in a trailer. For several hours, they explained how some time in the not-too-distant future there would be global racial conflict, leading to Jesus Christ returning and banishing the different races to separate planets in some cosmic version of old-school southern segregationist policies. Late in the evening, when it had grown dark outside, they made me a cup of tea, which I appreciated. They seemed a little warmer towards me and I asked whether, after the inevitable race war, I might be able to make occasional visits to the black people’s planets, but it was still a non-starter.
In the years since, I’ve made many more hours of documentaries on a variety of subjects, some of them focused on more innocent kinds of cultural oddity, such as infomercial gurus or swingers’ parties; others on more serious social themes of crime and mental health. But there has always been a strand in my work of being curious about the side of life deemed – in that rather woolly pejorative buzzword – “problematic”.