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UK Politics

The BBC gave Griffin the oxygen of publicity. He choked

Tom Sutcliffe on Nick Griffin’s Question Time appearance

"If you all attack on different fronts we'll never get anywhere," said David Dimbleby towards the end of the most-watched edition of Question Time for many years. He's said that sort of thing many times, of course, but it's never before had the flavour of a tactical suggestion.

After 30 minutes of singularly concentrated fire – almost everyone present directing their contempt at just one of the politicians present – this unique political consensus was briefly broken up over a question on Labour immigration policy. But it wasn't long before Griffin was under attack again – everyone present conspicuously aware that the following day they would be asked "what did you do in the war". And if you want a crude bottom line on victory and defeat you'd have to say that the principle of free speech had just about managed to stay upright while Mr Griffin had retired wounded.

Was it an early Christmas present for the BNP, an audience member asked finally, as Peter Hain had charged? If it was it was one of those presents that requires you to adopt a fixed and unconvincing grin, and which falls apart in your hands even as the wrapping is coming off.

You can tell all you need to know about the BNP leader from the language he uses when he's talking in private. Addressing "fellow British patriots" on the BNP website earlier he'd talked of this programme as a "milestone in the indomitable march of the BNP towards saving our country".

In his boast that it would be "the key moment that propels the BNP into the big time" and his accompanying promise to "take on the corrupt, treacherous swine destroying our beautiful island nation" you could hear the authentic voice of a narrow mind craving a wider platform. But that was never going to be the voice he would use on air. No talk of swine here, only the careful emollience of a man hoping to present himself as far more reasonable than anyone could have expected. Jack Straw accused him of being "the Dr Strangelove of British politics". What Griffin was aiming for, though, was to present himself as the Blair of bigotry, a reformer not afraid to pry his party apart from its cherished paranoia to something like popular common sense.

The challenge for the panellists was to pry this limpet of strategic blandness from the rock and expose the unsightly muscle beneath – something achieved with only variable success. It wasn't for want of trying. Everyone had come armed with the kind of quotations and associations Griffin doesn't care to have repeated – the platform appearances with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and Abu Hamza, the embarrassing remarks about the Holocaust and racial purity. Griffin was often feeble in self-exculpation: "I do not have a conviction for Holocaust denial" isn't exactly an indignant repudiation of the charge. But such was the crush to pile in on Griffin that a more forensic dissection of his inconsistencies fell by the wayside in the interests of public avowals of disgust. "Skin colour's irrelevant, Jack", he said at one point, eliciting a startled moo from the audience. But there was no follow up on why this notional irrelevance should play such a large part in Mr Griffin's notion of Britishness.

And when he obligingly told an Asian member of the audience that he was welcome to stay in the BNP's brave new Britain, should it ever come to pass, he wasn't pressed on whether he'd also be allowed to marry who he chose. Curiously, it was the sole question that wasn't about the BNP that offered the best line of defence for the BBC – not at its most coherent in the past few days, but perhaps hoping now that the worst is over. The only person in Britain who may have a claim to being less popular than Mr Griffin – the columnist Jan Moir – had prompted a question as to whether the Daily Mail had been right to publish her piece on the death of Stephen Gately. A gay member of the audience said: "Good on the Daily Mail for publishing it because it showed the British public isn't homophobic and, Mr Griffin, you're in a minority".

It was a messy affair – but I think you could say something similar about the near unanimity of the reactions on – and to – this edition of Question Time.