When Nick Griffin and fellow British National Party candidate Andrew Brons won two seats at the recent European elections there was no rioting or storming the gates of parliament. Yet when Griffin was invited to talk on the BBC last week all hell broke loose. Television succeeded where the ballot box did not and the appearance of Britain’s fifth largest party on the BBC caused an outbreak of national soul-searching and riots that besieged the broadcaster’s London headquarters. Opponents were furious that the venerable broadcaster was legitimising a far-right wing group by giving them the “oxygen of publicity”. Anti-fascist protesters tried and failed to shut the program down. Supporters said the BNP deserved to be heard, and some free speech advocates defended Grffin’s right to appear on Question Time while expressing a Voltaire-like disagreement with every word he uttered. (photo of BBC riots by Reuters)
The entire affair seems overblown given how irrelevant the BNP are. The party won ten percent of the European election vote in heavily working class areas where the Labor Government is on the nose. Its overall vote was actually down on the 2004 election. It is likely many this year’s protest votes will swing back at the next general election. The BNP are a lunatic fringe for the disaffected with few coherent policies. Its now illegal membership criteria requires that all members be part of the "Indigenous Caucasian" racial group (purely on looks alone) and want everyone who is not so Aryan to go “home”.
Membership of the party is currently closed while apparatchiks write a new constitution to be presented to members for acceptance. The BNP’s limited appeal is based (as was the National Front of the 1970s) in the notion that Britain is being “swamped” by miscellaneous “others”. The party will never win an election or gain any sort of power. While their views might be repugnant to many, they also give voice to the frustration of many who want to blame someone else for their own inadequacies.
What the controversy really showed is the immense power of the national broadcaster. Popular media such as the BBC can amplify any subject matter. According to www.ranking.com, bbc.co.uk is one of the world’s 25 most used websites and the second most accessed news site (after CNN). Its British television stations remain hugely influential and eight million people watched Thursday’s episode of Question Time which featured Griffin and other British politicians including Labor Lord Chancellor Jack Straw.
In Britain there has been a strong tradition of public ownership of media going back to the invention of broadcasting in the 1920s. The BBC was created with a government-appointed board of governors and funded by an annual licence fee. Under John Reith the BBC established a high-minded tradition that eschewed the position of the popular tabloid newspapers in favour of high culture. Committed to the avoidance of sensationalism, it did not hire its first newspaper journalist until 1932. According to journalism academic Michael Schudson, the BBC forbade discussion of birth control in the 1930s and 1940s under its government-regulated monopoly. In the face of changing social values and competition from ITV in the 1950s it was discussed along with divorce and other controversial topics. Competition finally gave the BBC something to worry about other than their political paymasters.
The BBC rose to the new challenge with a topical political question-and-answer radio program. “Any Questions?” started on the Home Service in 1948 and runs to this day. Notably the program was stopped for ten minutes in 1976 when far-right politician Enoch Powell appeared and anti-fascist protesters threw bricks at the church where the show was recorded. Three years later, the format was tried on television as Question Time. Three panel members from each of the main parties were joined by a non-politician to face questions from the audience. In 1999, a fifth panel member was invited who was either from the minor parties or another non-politician. Over 30 years the show has become the BBC's flagship political panel show.
The BNP have been persona non grata until their recent European and council victories. When Griffin finally did appear on the show, it was almost an anti-climax. The BNP leader was sensible enough to leave his more outrageous opinions in the dressing room and he tried to steer a course of a drastic, but understandable, reaction to an immigration crisis. Like most politicians he used as many words he could to say as little as possible. He claimed was a “moderniser” who simply wanted to end immigration. He was also nervous and the target of intense questioning and jeering from the crowd.
Nearly every question was related to BNP politics and Griffin was pilloried by a multi-cultural audience. One person told him that “the vast majority of this audience finds what you stand for to be completely disgusting.” The libertarian Brendan O’Neill wrote in Spiked called the debate “surreal” and a “cultural lynching of Griffin by members of a political elite bereft of ideas and lost for words.” He saw it as an act of moral distancing that established a sense of “us and him” that made Griffin a “voodoo doll they can stick pins in to try to ward off their own political misfortunes.”
Griffin will probably feel the pain of these pinpricks is worthwhile and the BNP will undoubtedly gain traction as a result of his appearance. The party’s issues will temporarily get on the agenda. Many will sympathise with the way Griffin was torn apart on the program and others will react positively to his racist message. Nevertheless the BNP will always be a fringe party that will be handicapped by Britain’s first past-the-post electoral system. The BBC was right to allow him on Question Time and have the right to invite who ever they see fit to appear on their shows. Broadcasting asserts a right to public access. By encouraging more people to keep informed it encourages more participation in public life. More participation will likely mean more unsavoury voices in the public sphere but it is crucial they be heard. Anything less is toxic to democracy.