British television viewers were last week treated to the extraordinary spectacle of the openly racist leader of an openly racist party — and a Holocaust denier to boot — appearing on a prime-time political panel show, on which he attempted to defend his mostly indefensible views in the face of an onslaught from hostile fellow panel members and an even more hostile studio audience.
Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party and recently elected member of the European Parliament, appeared on the BBC’s Question Time after BBC bosses refused to give in to pressure to exclude him. The result was an entirely predictable media circus, with Griffin jeered at every turn while anti-racism campaigners battled with police outside the studio.
It’s hard to know what the BBC’s motives were. Perhaps they really were playing by the rules and acknowledging Griffin’s right to be heard. Perhaps the leftists who run the BBC thought they were cleverly giving Griffin enough rope to hang himself. Or perhaps, as this story in the UK’s Telegraph suggests, they simply wanted to generate publicity and boost the ratings for Question Time — both of which they succeeded spectacularly in doing.
Even among the majority who are opposed to the BNP, opinion on Griffin’s appearance was sharply divided. In one camp were those who said that by allowing the BNP to share a platform with mainstream politicians, the BBC was giving the party respectability and a public relations coup. On the other side were those who said that, no matter how odious its views, the BNP had a right to be heard, and that banning the party would allow it to don the cloak of free speech martyrs and drive its support underground. And, they argued, allowing the party to spout its nonsense would expose its members for what they truly are and drive away potential supporters.
Depending on which report you believe, Griffin’s appearance was either a spectacular victory for the BNP or a spectacular failure. The reality is that it was probably neither. Those who either supported or opposed the BNP will have had their attitudes hardened, while a few undecideds may have been persuaded one way or the other.
Outside of the BNP’s relatively small number of supporters, opposition to the party and its policies is overwhelming, both among people of all political stripes and those not ordinarily concerned with politics. Yet it was old-school, hard-left Labour politicians, left-wing commentators, and pressure groups who most vociferously demanded that the BNP should be censored.
Why such palpitations from the left, when so many Britons oppose the BNP so emphatically? The answer is to be found in a poll conducted for the Telegraph in the wake of Griffin’s sixty minutes of infamy. More than a fifth of voters said they would “seriously consider” voting for the BNP — a troubling number, but, assuming that perhaps half of that group make good on their threat, not enough to enable the party to extend its representation beyond the current scattering of local councillors and two Euro MPs. But the more telling statistic was that more than half of those questioned thought the BNP “had a point.”