Packing them in 

23 October 2009

Griffin complaint over BBC ‘mob’

It’s hard to feel much sympathy for Nick Griffin, the leader of the right-wing British National Party, whose controversial appearance on Question Time last night provoked a sizeable demonstration outside Television Centre and led to scuffles and arrests. His performance on air did nothing to dispel the suspicion that he still sets too much store by the politics of race for most people’s comfort.

Goaded by the other panellists – Jack Straw, the justice minister and former Trotskyist; Baroness Warsi, appointed shadow minister for community cohesion to the consternation of the gay rights lobby Stonewall, Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat’s home affairs spokesman and unsuccessful challenger for the party’s leadership, and Bonnie Greer, a playwright and critic – Mr Griffin squirmed as he fended off constant criticism about his past involvement with the National Front and members of the Ku Klux Klan, and public pronouncements he has made about the holocaust and Islam.

Given the controversy surrounding Mr Griffin’s participation, it was perhaps inevitable that many of the questions would concern the BNP. Why was the party trying to appropriate the symbols and imagery of the 1939-45 war? Would Winston Churchill, Britain’s legendary wartime leader, really have found more of a home in the BNP than in David Cameron’s Conservatives? How much of a problem is immigration really? To where would he repatriate non-Britons?

It was immigration where Mr Griffin was on firmest ground. Perhaps, outside of the international, multicultural audience to be expected in west London, his concerns about immigration might have garnered some sympathy. Even so, Mr Straw looked decidedly uncomfortable as Labour’s record on immigration was challenged, giving shifty and evasive answers to questions.

The audience was almost uniformly hostile to Mr Griffin. Normally, the Question Time audience spans a wide age range, from teenagers to old-age pensioners. Not this time: it was much younger than usual, with people older than forty not much in evidence. In that sense, it was far from a representative cross-section of west London, never mind the United Kingdom.

The one question ostensibly about something other than the BNP itself was well chosen. Jan Moir has written for a number of newspapers, including the Guardian and Daily Telegraph, and now writes a column for the Daily Mail. Commenting on the death of Stephen Gately, a pop singer, she asked why he would go alone to bed while his partner, a business man called Andrew Cowles, had sex with a young Bulgarian guy in their apartment. Mr Gately’s death, she added for good measure, had “struck another blow” to the “happy-ever-after myth” of civil partnerships.

Perhaps because of the rather snide tone, perhaps because she was perceived to be speaking ill of the dead, people reacted badly. To say that there was a number of complaints is understating it somewhat; the Press Complaints Commission, ironically enough chaired by Paul Dacre, publisher of the Daily Mail, in which paper the offending article was published, was swamped by a record 22,000 complaints in a single weekend, according to Stephen Brook of the Guardian; more than it had received over the past five years.

Mr Griffin duly trotted out his homophobic side, saying that the sight of gay men kissing in public was “creepy”. Perhaps some homosexuals think that the sight of heterosexuals kissing in public is nauseous. However, Baroness Warsi did not exactly acquit herself either – her statement that homosexuals have the right to conduct civil partnerships was not exactly a ringing endorsement of the concept.

The BBC itself was not holier-than-thou. Mr Griffin later complained that the programme had departed from its usual format to concentrate on tearing him apart. It certainly made for uncomfortable viewing at times, and was less a debate than a slanging match. As such, it fell well below the standards that one normally expects from Question Time. While not exactly car crash television, it was noisy and rancorous, and a betrayal of the courtesy, decency and tolerance on which the British people pride themselves. Mark Byford, the BBC’s deputy director general, later said that if the questions were mainly about the BNP that’s because the audience chose the questions, but that begs the question: who chose the audience?

That in itself is a good question. Ask around on the blogosphere and you’ll find people who believe the BBC to have form for packing a hand-picked audience known to be politically “sound”, the Question Time immediately after 11 September 2001 being a case in point. This edition was filmed in Television Centre – how many of the audience were BBC staffers? It was certainly uniformly hostile to Mr Griffin, and on the basis of the BNP’s electoral support you would expect a portion of the audience large enough to be measured to be at least a little nuanced in its criticism.

Speaking on BBC One afterwards, Diane Abbot, a Labour politician, remarked that had the programme come from outside London, the audience might have been a little more grown up and less hysterical. As it was, this broadcast had a very low signal-to-noise ratio, and, with its boos and hisses, was an unexpected, and unwelcome, curtain-raiser to this year’s pantomime season.

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