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How the BNP came in from the cold

Question Time's grotesque stunt has allowed the BNP to enter the political mainstream. There is now

This past week marked a great turning point for the British National Party. It officially arrived in the political and media mainstream, aided and abetted by the BBC. There is now no going back.

But was it right for the corporation to host Nick Griffin as a panellist on BBC1's Question Time? The issue has been extensively debated in the media and behind the scenes at the top of the Labour and Conservative parties. At a meeting of the cabinet on 15 September, the Welsh Secretary, Peter Hain, and Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, found themselves in a minority, arguing that the government should not be "bullied" by the BBC into appearing. The Communities Secretary, John Denham, volunteered to go on, and cabinet agreed that someone should indeed appear. Twelve days later, the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, was selected.

The decision signalled the culmination of a wider discussion within Labour about how to tackle the far right. Protagonists of engagement point to the failure of the French left to combat the emergence of the Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who shocked Europe by coming second in the 2002 presidential elections. But others, including Hain and Johnson, argue that Labour had "nothing to lose" from its "no-platform" policy. "We could have badly embarrassed the BBC by showing it would rather host a fascist than a member of the government," a minister told me.

Over at the Conservative party headquarters, a meeting of the shadow cabinet was convened to discuss whether to "empty chair" the BBC programme. The shadow schools secretary, Michael Gove, who was initially scheduled to appear, but then was replaced by Baroness Warsi, the deputy chair of the party and a Muslim, was among those who felt that a non-appearance would empower Nick Griffin. So, with Labour and the Tories on board, Question Time's grotesque stunt ensued.

Yet such was the controversy into which the BBC had plunged itself that the corporation's bosses found themselves spinning lines on behalf of the BNP. After Hain wrote to the BBC's director general, Mark Thompson, to point out that the BNP was an "unlawful" entity with a whites-only membership policy, Thompson seemed to leap to Griffin's defence. Following legal advice sought by the BBC, he said, "the [BNP] is not prevented from continuing to operate on a day-to-day basis". Ric Bailey, the BBC's omnipresent chief political adviser, went further in claiming, without evidence, that the corporation could have been challenged in the courts had it not hosted Griffin on Question Time, since it had, in Thompson's words, an "obligation to scrutinise and hold to account all elected representatives". Bailey also resorted to the electoral argument: the BNP had to be represented on Question Time, he said, because it "won more than 6 per cent of the vote across Britain - approaching a million people".

None of these positions bears scrutiny. First, as I revealed last month, Question Time wanted to host Griffin as early as 2007. At the time, I was working as a producer on the show, and this was long before the BNP's electoral "breakthrough". Much has been made of the BNP's "million votes" in June's European elections but, nationally, its vote share was a tiny 6.2 per cent - up 1.3 per cent on 2004. The BNP benefited from a collapse in the Labour vote. And, as Hain told me: "The BBC's argument is threadbare. The logic of saying that a million votes gets you a place on Question Time is that if, say, [the Islamist cleric] Abu Hamza formed a party and attracted that support, he would go on."

Second, there was never any "obligation", legal or otherwise, to invite Griffin on to the BBC's most popular current-affairs show, any more than there is an "obligation" for Griffin to appear on Ready Steady Cook. The BBC's current-affairs output has to be impartial and balanced but, as I argued at internal meetings in 2007, the main problem is the format: it is difficult not to have a "good" Question Time. It was far better having the BNP on Newsnight and Radio 4's Today programme. Labour's Jon Cruddas, who confronts the BNP threat daily in his Dagenham constituency, has pointed out that the BBC could have given Griffin "45 minutes with John Humphrys or Andrew Neil".

This was not about denying free speech, but about limiting the opportunity for the incitement of racial and religious hatred in front of a live studio audience and millions of viewers - incitement that began, incidentally, before the show aired. The anti-fascist group Searchlight highlighted pre-emptive smears, on the BNP website, against two other panellists, Baroness Warsi and the playwright Bonnie Greer, who was described as a "black history fabricator".

So what is the fallout from all of this? "The BBC has voluntarily brought the BNP right into centre stage, as if it is just another party," Hain told me. "Yet what normal party has a convicted criminal as its leader? What the BBC has done is totally obnoxious."

It has been left to wiser institutions to challenge the BNP. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York said, in a joint statement, that "Christians have been . . . disturbed by the conscious adoption by the BNP of the language of our faith . . . to foster fear and division within communities". Retired generals such as Sir Michael Jackson and Sir Richard Dannatt have accused far-right parties of seeking to "hijack the good name of Britain's military for their own advantage" and called on them to "cease and desist".

But cease they will not. That was made certain by the irresponsible behaviour of the BBC. Griffin will almost certainly be back again on Question Time. And so, we will have to rely on Britain's other great institutions - and, ultimately, on the public - to keep this party of hate in its place.

Follow our live blog on Question Time on 22 October, BBC1, 10.30pm

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, New York / London