The British National Party is to be given an interview slot on the prestigious BBC Radio 4 Today programme on the morning after the corporation broadcasts its prime ministerial debate, moderated by David Dimbleby later this month.
The BBC is so concerned that it gets the balance of its coverage right that the director-general Mark Thompson is to write a blog during the election campaign in which he will seek to address the concerns of viewers and listeners and to respond to accusations of bias in the corporation’s political output.
Ric Bailey, the BBC’s chief political adviser, said that he believes the BNP should be allowed to feature on Today in the wake of the 90-minute debate on 29 April in order to compensate for not participating in the event itself. “I think there will probably be an interview with the BNP on the Today programme the following morning,” he said. The right-wing party is also likely to be given a clip of around 20 seconds within the BBC Ten O’clock News to make an immediate response to the prime ministerial broadcast, which will take place in the Midlands and feature Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg.
But Bailey, who was in charge of ensuring impartiality when the BBC featured BNP leader as a panellist in an edition of Question Time last October, said the extremist party would be given considerably less air time than it was permitted in the aftermath of its relative success in the European elections last year because it’s track record was not so good under the first past the post system.
“Question Time was being done in the context of the follow up to the European elections when the BNP had got 6 per cent of the vote and for the first time had got representation at a national level,” Bailey told The Independent. “If you look at the BNP in the context of a general election, the BNP got less than 1 per cent of the vote at the 2005 election. If you can look at how much coverage different parties should get, clearly we don’t ignore the European result but it was a different system, a different turnout, and it only gets so much weight.”
The BBC’s decision to allow Nick Griffin to appear on Question Time attracted considerable controversy, with rallies staged by anti-fascist presenters outside Television Centre in west London. A live appearance on Today, which is hosted by John Humphrys and Evan Davis and attracts an audience of more than 6.5m, may generate similar protests. Griffin appeared on Today the morning after being elected to the European Parliament in June last year and made the claim that “there’s a huge amount of racism in this country”. It is probable that he would welcome the publicity of a high-profile interview in what is likely to be the final week of the general election campaign.
Bailey said that UKIP had demonstrated that it deserved “meaty” coverage during the campaign. “UKIP clearly is a party which got a lot of support in the European election, much more than the BNP. It’s also clearly established itself as the fourth party in the General Election last time, ahead of the Greens and the Greens are ahead of the BNP. The BNP is quite a small party, so the level of coverage it will get in the context of the prime ministerial debate will be quite short. It will get some coverage but it won’t be enormous,” he said. “I would expect to see on the Ten O’clock News immediately following the debate you will see an interview with UKIP, they will get something quite meaty.”
Smaller parties, including the BNP, can expect to be given a clip on the main evening television news bulletin after the BBC’s prime ministerial debate. “You might see 20 seconds or something like that. You would see at least a brief reaction,” said Bailey, who emphasised that the timings on such clips were not exact.
“It’s an art rather than a science and if you tried to turn it into a mathematical formula you’d go completely bonkers.”
Bailey said that Thompson’s blog was an attempt to reassure the audience of the BBC’s commitment to impartiality. “It’s a message about the way the BBC will approach the general election – the words robust and impartial will occur quite a lot,” he said. “The BBC comes under a lot of pressure during election campaigns and quite rightly so, we have a lot of output which a lot of people who are voting will get to hear so understandably people take an awful lot of notice of what we are doing and are not slow to point out when they think we are lacking.”
The blog will also stress the commitment of BBC News to testing the claims made by political parties during the campaign. “We have to make sure we have got a balance between dealing appropriately with issues as they arise and being clear about what our role is during an election, which is to scrutinise and to hold to account and to be absolutely impartial and to give appropriate airtime to all of the parties. In the modern media it is a complicated business but we have a firm commitment to it.”