Steve Richards: The panel format may allow Griffin to thrive

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The Independent Online

The BBC is right to give airtime to Nick Griffin, but wrong to offer him a place on the panel of Question Time, a format which will almost certainly fail to expose or closely scrutinise the foolishly dangerous views he holds.

After this summer's European elections the BBC had no choice but to accept that Mr Griffin is a player of some significance. It does not decide whether or not a party merits a national platform. The voters are responsible for giving Mr Griffin a national stage by electing two BNP members to the European Parliament in the summer. The BBC has a duty to reflect the national political picture rather than distort it by pretending the BNP does not exist or is irrelevant even if we would prefer that this was the case.

However the BBC has been unnecessarily generous in placing Mr Griffin on Question Time. The format is perfect for clever, slippery, charming politicians. Mr Griffin is a slippery, clever and charming politician who happens to hold ugly views. If he is as astute as he normally is in public situations he will thrive too easily.

This is partly because the audience is the main character on Question Time, bigger than any panellist when issues are highly charged. The audience at the height of the Westminster expenses affair defined the entire crisis. Its anger was almost physical. If some members had been given stones to hurl at the fearful panel they would have thrown them.

When Mr Griffin appears parts of the audience will also be angry. If he is as clever as he normally is he will be calm and appear the reasonable martyr as his opponents jeer loudly. The angrier they are the more reasonable he will seem. He will be hoping for anger, an aspiration probably shared by the programme's makers, some of whom regard politics as a branch of show business.

On the other hand if Mr Griffin is cheered a false impression will be conveyed that he speaks for a larger part of Britain than he does. Let us not forget in the two seats the BNP won this summer it secured fewer voters than in the previous election.

In terms of mood music therefore he cannot lose. I fear he will get away with the substance of the arguments as well. Question Time is a fast-moving programme. No panellist is challenged for very long before another member of the panel is brought in or the issue goes out to the audience.

The novelty and the controversy will mean that Griffin is centre of attention, but his vacuous views will not be for very long before the next question is called. Question Time is high-octane, gripping political theatre, but that is precisely why Griffin should not be allowed near this particular stage.