Nick Griffin came under fierce criticism from all sides last night as he made his first appearance on the BBC’s Question Time.
The British National Party leader attracted a hostile audience response as he defended a past leader of the Ku Klux Klan and declared that Winston Churchill would have been a member of the BNP.
The broadcast sparked large protests at the BBC Television Centre in west London with three police officers injured and six people arrested after demonstrators broke through police lines.
In a sign that the BBC was determined to avoid appearing too soft on Griffin, almost all questions – on Churchill, Islam, immigration and Griffin’s appearance — focused on BNP policy. The corporation had come under intense criticism from those who claimed that it legitimised the BNP by inviting Griffin.
Griffin attempted to present himself as a man who had modernised what had once been an extremist party but his insistence that he had changed his views was ridiculed by the audience and the panel.
He claimed that the BNP was no longer committed to creating an all-white Britain but refused to discuss his stance on mixed marriages. His description of the former Ku Klux Klan leader, David Duke, as a “non-violent” figure prompted laughter in the studio. And he struggled to respond to an audience member who asked: “You’re committed to a white Britain. Where do you want me to go?”
Challenged on his denial of the holocaust by presenter David Dimbleby, Griffin claimed that European law prevented him from explaining why he no longer took that position.
He went on to cite British radio intercepts of German transmissions which showed there had been mass murder of Jews on the eastern front. But the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, who was also on the panel, replied: “What about Auschwitz? You don’t need a subsequent radio intercept to find out that people were gassed at Auschwitz.”
Griffin’s persistent smirk during the exchanges led Dimbleby to ask, “Why are you smiling, it is not a particularly amusing issue”.
A young Jewish audience member challenged Griffin on his comparison of the belief that six million Jews were killed in the holocaust to the belief that the earth was flat.
He said: “Sir Winston Churchill put everything on the line so that my ancestors wouldn’t get slaughtered in the concentration camps. But here sits a man who says that is a myth just like a flat world was a myth.”
Earlier in the programme Griffin claimed that the wartime prime minister would have joined the BNP. “I said that Churchill would belong in the BNP, because no other party would have him for what he said in the early days of mass immigration into this country, the fact that they are ‘only coming for our benefits system’, and for the fact that in his younger days he was extremely critical of the dangers of fundamentalist Islam in a way which would now be described as Islamophobic.”
The BBC insisted that Griffin’s hostile reception vindicated its controversial decision to invite him. The deputy director-general, Mark Byford, said:”Members of the audience asked the kind of tough questions that mark Question Time out as the premier television programme where the public put the panellists on the spot.”
But the Welsh Secretary, Peter Hain, who had appealed to the BBC to withdraw their invite, again condemned the broadcast.
“This could end up blighting the lives of many decent people in Britain just because they are not white. The BBC should be ashamed of single-handedly doing a racist, fascist party the biggest favour in its grubby history,” he said.
Straw insisted that it had been a “catastrophic” week for the BNP, with Griffin exposed as a “fantasising conspiracy theorist”.
“For the first time the views of the BNP have been properly scrutinised,” he said.