Millions of Britons will be watching tonight as the nation’s public broadcaster gives the controversial leader of a far-right party his first appearance on prime time political television.
Anti-fascist protesters gathered outside the studios of the British Broadcasting Corporation ahead of a pre-taped appearance on “Question Time” by British National Party leader, Nick Griffin. Griffin is a familiar face in British politics, if at the very fringes. He was elected leader of the far-right BNP party in the late 1990s, not long after being convicted of inciting racial hatred relating to material denying the Holocaust. He was cleared of race hate offences in 2006 after the BBC secretly filmed him telling a crowd that Islam was a “wicked, vicious faith.” He campaigns against immigration and asks on his Web site: “Have you had enough of being called a ‘racist’ because you are proud to be British” Only last week, the party agreed to consider letting non-white members join the party after a court challenge instigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Read the story Should everyone have the right to free speech Sound Off below Of his appearance on “Question Time,” the far-right leader said in a message to members that “this could be THE key moment that propels the BNP into the big time.” Staunch critics of Griffin and the British National Party fear he could be right. Labour MP Peter Hain has said that by making the “extraordinary” decision to allow Griffin to speak, the “BBC will be showcasing the BNP on a panel alongside the mainstream parties as an equally legitimate, respectable, democratic political party, when it is nothing of the kind.” Parallels have been drawn between Griffin’s appearance on “Question Time,” Britain’s most-watched political program, and Jean-Marie Le Pen’s debut on L’Heure de Vrit (The Hour of Truth), a similar show on French television in the 1980s. Le Pen, founder and leader of the Front National (National Front) Party, credited the television appearance with taking him from the political wilderness to prominence on the political stage. Jim Shields, associate professor in French studies at the University of Warwick, and author of “The Extreme Right in France: From Ptain to Le Pen,” told the BBC that the outrage that has preceded Griffin’s appearance could backfire.
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“There are strong parallels between what happened in France 25 years ago and what is happening now, here,” he told the BBC. “The essential fact is the same: The leader of a party ostracized by the political establishment given a prominent media platform and the whole thing surrounded by a lot of media attention, with attempts to prevent his appearance, the perverse affect of which of course is to raise even more the interest people will have in watching the program.” The BBC has defended its decision to provide a national platform for the far-right leader. Writing in the Guardian newspaper, BBC Director-General Mark Thompson said, “The case against inviting the BNP to appear on Question Time is a case for censorship.” He said until the British government made a decision to impose a media blackout on the BNP, as it did with Sinn Fein and other parties and organizations in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, the BBC was obliged to be impartial, according to its Charter. It has previously given air-time to minority parties including the anti-Iraq war Respect party and the Scottish Socialists. “It is a straightforward matter of fact that, with some six percent of the vote and the election of two MEPs in this spring’s European elections… the BNP has demonstrated a level of support that would normally lead to an occasional invitation to join the panel on Question Time,” Thompson wrote. If traffic to the British National Party Web site is anything to go by, the outcry over Griffin’s appearance has already boosted interest, or at the very least, curiosity about the party. A temporary site has been erected with a message: “We have had to take our normal website offline due to the enormous amount of ordinary people, just like you, visiting our website.” Unlike Le Pen, who was ostracized before his primetimes appearance in France, the British National Party as recently achieved some of its best results in the polls. The party won two seats in the European Parliamentary elections in the summer, the first time it had ever won seats in Strasbourg, France. Griffin is one of the BNP’s two members of the European Parliament. “Question Time,” one of the stalwarts of BBC programming, allows a studio audience to put their questions directly to a group of four politicians and guests. Griffin is under no illusions about the reception he is likely to receive. In a message to members, he said it would like be a “political bloodsport.” “I will, no doubt, be interrupted, shouted down, slandered, put on the spot, and subject to a scrutiny that would be a thousand times more intense than anything directed at other panelists,” he said. “Question Time” could see some of its largest viewing figures as the nation tunes in to see if he’s right.