Even more questions 

26 October 2009 tbs.pm/1112

Coup or crisis? Can the panel discuss …

As the controversy surrounding BNP leader Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time rumbles on, it’s still hard to properly determine the long term impact that this has had. However it seems very evident that Griffin has done himself few favours amongst those who are undecided on who to vote for regardless of their policy.

Based on pure logic and freedom of speech principles alone, the BBC felt obliged to feature someone from the BNP in some form of politics-based programming, especially as the BNP is a legal political party that had won seats in the European Parliament.

It’s very difficult to argue against that rationale from a public service broadcasting perspective, no matter how hard you try. And there is the argument that if you ignore fringe parties altogether, there’s a good chance that they will gain underground credibility amongst voters as a consequence.

This has also occurred at a time when the BBC is trying to exert its independence during an era when it is being squeezed by politicians (using “commercial considerations” as an excuse to put pressure on the corporation), therefore it cannot be actively seen to shy away from any debate that’s awkward but necessary in a truly democratic society.

It seemed reasonably clear from the outset that this edition of Question Time wasn’t going to be ordinary by any stretch of the imagination, and given the politically charged issues at stake there was also a very high probability of any attempted debate quickly degenerating into a shouting match.

Especially when you realise that the mainstream political parties are defending their own ‘standard’ immigration policies combined with the general assumption that extreme forms of immigration control (of the sort that are likely to be advocated by the BNP) are abhorrent to the vast majority of British people, regardless of political and religious beliefs.

Combine all of this with an extremist party leader who isn’t exactly the greatest orator, and you end up with a combination that’s very difficult to ‘balance’ even if ultimately representative of the composition of British politics. (Organisations like the BNP are still definitely in the minority, regardless of what some might like to think.)

Perhaps David Dimbleby could have controlled the ‘debate’ even tighter in order to attempt an extraction of a meaningful policy response from Nick Griffin, but when you have a basic disagreement over someone’s interpretation of historical events (and by definition the ground rules for debate), then this becomes even more tricky to achieve.

There’s the dilemma of giving Griffin too much time to speak unchallenged, when doing so could cause the BBC to breach rules (and commonsense) relating to the incitement of race hatred – even when Jack Straw is there and part of the debate – and anyone who is interested in BNP policy can always research the facts online for themselves.

Throw in time constraints both for the programme’s length and its recording, the end result was perhaps inevitable, although it’s still arguable that despite the “Jerry Springer” nature of some of its content, a valuable function was performed in terms of exposing some of the inadequacies of Griffin as a party leader (and by definition BNP policy).

There was always the possibility that any media exposure could increase the popularity of the BNP, and I suspect that the editing process was rather more fraught that it ordinarily is given its high profile and risky nature (remembering Crowngate, Sachsgate…); not to mention the dangers of getting this badly wrong both for the BBC and democracy in general.

Especially when a fair number of voters may agree with the basic anti-immigration stance that the BNP has as a main thrust of its policy and could use a BNP vote as a protest against the established parties, even if most of these voters would baulk at the more extreme actions that the BNP would use if they ever were to gain power.

And there were always going to be accusations of any debate being one-sided in one direction or the other, plus the topic of conversation would never stray far away from immigration whilst Griffin was around, given the highly controversial nature of BNP policy.

Then there’s the choice of programme format for someone like Griffin to be featured in. Some have complained that an open format like Question Time was inadequate for the task at hand and a grilling by someone like Jeremy Paxman would have been more appropriate, but this ignores the fact that Paxman had already interviewed Griffin in the past.

And getting someone to interview Griffin would still attract partiality claims regardless of how careful the interviewer was and the presentation style employed. In short, virtually anything of a political nature would have its detractors regardless of format style, and a studio discussion does tend to suggest an ‘open’ public debate even if recorded and edited.

One perhaps unintended consequence of all of this relates to the future of the Question Time format itself, given the unusual popularity and nature of this particular edition; it may inevitably be difficult to proceed from here without careful consideration even as a long-running format (though tired, according to some critics) and is still reasonably popular.

So was the Question Time debate ultimately worthwhile? For one thing it has provided a public document of Nick Griffin as a somewhat inadequate leader – as superficially appearing to the politically-literate majority – even if any practical and lengthy debate in relation to immigration and its social impact was next to impossible under those circumstances.

Because the alternative, namely not even attempting to mention the extremist views of a tiny minority, risks the repetition of past events that would be judged by the majority to be most unwelcome in an open and generally tolerant society, even if the BNP stand no chance whatsoever of gaining any significant influence in British politics.

A member of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System
Liverpool, Monday 5 December 2022