The BBC's flagship political programme Question Time has delivered its fair share of on-air rows during its 30-year history, as politicians of differing hues have faced occasionally angry audiences and engaged in an hour of heated debate. But next week's edition is already threatening to provide more than the usual verbal jousting after the Corporation's decision to give a prized seat on the panel to the leader of the British National Party (BNP).
The programme's producers are to push ahead with next week's show, which will feature the far-right party's leader, Nick Griffin, despite plans by anti-fascist campaigners to hold a protest outside BBC headquarters on the day of filming and the decision by some cabinet ministers to refuse an invitation to take part. The Corporation is also risking a strike by some of its workers and questions remain over who will pay for the extra security needed to police the event.
In an attempt to minimise disruption, the BBC has refused to reveal the exact location of the show. It is currently simply listed as coming from London. However, it is widely expected that it will be filmed on 22 October at BBC Television Centre, in White City, west London, as other venues have been too nervous to stage it.
A spokesman for Unite Against Fascism, which is organising a day-long protest, said that plans were in place in case the BBC decided to change the venue at the last minute. "We want to be clear that the BBC should not be handing the BNP this invitation to political respectability," a spokesman said.
The BBC says it is duty bound to offer a seat on the panel to the BNP, as the party won two seats during the European Parliament elections in June. Bonnie Greer, the black playwright and author, has accepted an invitation to appear on the programme alongside Mr Griffin. Labour was forced to review its long-held refusal to share a platform with members of the party, and the Justice Secretary Jack Straw has now agreed to represent the Government.
Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, will be appearing for his party. The inclusion of Greer means that only one place remains unfilled on the panel. The Tories have said that they will leave it until next week to make a final decision on who they will nominate to appear.
Mr Straw's allies said last night that it had not been an easy decision for him to make. "He takes the view that the best way to defeat the BNP is by taking them head on," one said. He is said to have sympathy with cabinet colleagues such as the Welsh Secretary, Peter Hain, and the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, who have refused to take part in protest.
Mr Huhne told The Independent that while he still had a policy of refusing to share a platform with the BNP at its own events, he felt the invitation from the BBC made it a different matter. "It would be very difficult for the BBC to stop the BNP taking part in a programme like this," he said. "You cannot have the programme makers deciding which parties the voters get to see. It would not make any sense for us to leave an empty chair at the event and not represent the party which holds the views that are the most diametrically opposed to those offered by the BNP."
A row has also begun over who will foot the bill for policing the event, with the BBC and the local council both hoping to avoid funding the security operation. Hammersmith and Fulham Council, which has the BBC's headquarters within its boundaries, said it wanted the edition of Question Time moved to another location because of the threat of protests. "Our concern is with the disruption to our residents who are trying to get in and out of Shepherd's Bush in their thousands at that time of day," a spokeswoman said.
Some BBC workers are said to be poised to launch industrial action if they are made to work on the edition. The broadcasting union, Bectu, has warned the Corporation not to go ahead with the programme.
The crisis over the BNP's debut on the show comes after the BBC was criticised for the way it handled an interview with two members of the far-right party on a Radio 1 programme. More than 100 complaints were received after it emerged that the pair, who were introduced simply as "Mark and Joey", were Mark Collett, the BNP's publicity director, and Joseph Barber, who runs the BNP's record label Great White Records. During the interview, they claimed that Ashley Cole, the Chelsea and England footballer, was not "ethnically British".