The BBC and the BNP: An uncomfortable public service
23 Oct 09
John Kampfner

John Kampfner

British National Party (BNP) leader Nick Griffin received the oxygen of publicity he craved by winning his spot on Question Time, Britain’s premier TV debate show, but at the end of a nation’s ordeal, democracy emerged intact, says John Kampfner.

Unlike the protests outside BBC Television Centre, the Question Time audience expressed its loathing of the BNP leader through a succession of passionate but informed and measured interventions.

In so doing the programme exposed Griffin for what he is – a smartly-dressed and uncharismatic thug. In so doing the programme also cast conventional politicians in a largely favourable light which they have not enjoyed for many a month.

For the BBC, whose default setting is extreme caution, this was a huge risk. For all the brickbats, its management will surely see the venture as being vindicated. It is right to do so. This was the lesser of two evils.

Censorship is not only wrong of itself; it is counter-productive. The only free expression worth anything in a democracy is the right for the person whose views one regards as most obnoxious to be heard.

For an hour viewers heard Griffin describe David Duke as a ’non-violent’ Ku Klux Klan leader; they heard him say he could not explain his previous statements denying the Holocaust; they heard him describe gays as ‘really creepy’. They heard him told by a man proud of his Britishness that he would do a ‘whip round’ and buy the BNP leader a ticket to take him to the ‘South Pole, a colourless landscape’ And they heard Griffin remind Jack Straw of Labour’s lamentable role in Iraq.

An uncomfortable public service was performed.

John Kampfner is CEO of Index on Censorship.