For all Peter Hain's efforts to put a judicial stop to Nick Griffin's appearance on Question Time this week, and the outrage it has caused, it is doubtful whether anything will stop the BNP leader airing his views to the nation this Thursday. Nor should it. The arguments over the Corporation's wisdom in offering an avowedly racial supremacist a platform on terrestrial TV are by now well aired.
There are those who feel that it is only the searing spotlight of publicity that can expose the far right party for what it is. There are equally those who feel that the BNP will only be fuelled by the oxygen of publicity. That is not the point, however. In the end the BBC took the view that, once the BNP had earned enough votes to elect two Members of the European Parliament earlier this year, it could not be excluded from the normal political process, including an appearance on the BBC's flagship programme. The Corporation may not have been wise to take this view. Indeed, for an institution so embattled as the broadcaster and with so many political enemies, it might well have made more sense to give Mr Griffin time on the normal political programmes.
On grounds of fairness, however, the Corporation was surely right to take the view that the BNP, for all the hatefulness of its policies, should have the same opportunities as the SNP, the Green Party and others who have been invited on this show, and the major parties were correct in responding by offering their own representatives. The sight of a Cabinet minister, the Justice Secretary no less, sitting beside a man of such unwholesome attitudes to race and immigration may seem abhorrent to many, obscene even. But if free speech is to mean anything in an open democracy, it has to accommodate even that. So long as a party is legal and has the support to elect members to a parliament, then to deprive it of the outlets offered to other parties would not only be unfair but self-defeating, adding to a sense of deliberate establishment isolation which has always energised fringe parties.
Whether the BNP is in fact a legal party is an issue which Peter Hain is making much of. He has a technical point. In a court case recently brought by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the party was forced to accept that its constitution banning members from non-white races was against the law and should be amended – which it has now promised to do. In the meantime it has said that it will take on no new members. But withdrawing the invitation at this stage would simply look mean-spirited and prejudiced. Far from punishing the BNP it would only feed their sense of victimhood.
The other question, of course, is whether the debate in a forum such as Question Time will prove the unmasking of BNP that this party's opponents hope. We will have to wait to see. Its arguments, and the facts it uses to support them, certainly need clear and forensic examination. Yet this particular format of short responses given to an audience question by each panellist in turn may not be the best means of achieving it. Nick Griffin is too experienced a performer to lose his temper or reveal his passions easily, while the other panellists will be tempted to grandstand in their own turn.
Whether he falters or survives the experience, however, is not really the point, which is the BNP's right to a public voice. That accepted, we can only hope that the BBC returns to subjecting Nick Griffin – as it does every other MP – to the kind of individual interview that will truly test his opinions and beliefs.Reuse content