Far-righter's TV invite stirs race debate in Britain

22nd October 2009, Comments 0 comments

The British media are facing a new dilemma: Should they give the democratically-elected British National Party politicians the oxygen of publicity, or keep their allegedly racist views out of sight?

London -- An appearance by the leader of the British National Party (BNP) on the BBC's top current affairs panel show Thursday has sparked a fierce debate about how media should cover the rise of the far-right.

Nick Griffin, the Cambridge-educated, besuited figure who has steered the BNP to its strongest-ever position, will take questions with four other public figures from audience members on "Question Time.”

The programme is the most potent symbol yet of a media dilemma which has come into sharp focus recently -- give democratically-elected BNP politicians the oxygen of publicity, or keep their allegedly racist views out of sight?

Cabinet minister Peter Hain has threatened legal action against the BBC unless it pulls Griffin from "Question Time,” saying it is an unlawful party after a recent court ruling which told it to admit non-white members.

"You are giving the BNP a legitimacy even they dare not claim in their current unlawful status," Welsh Secretary Hain wrote to BBC director general Mark Thompson last week.

"It would be perverse for you to maintain that they are just like any other democratically-elected party."

Anti-BNP protestors are also expected to target the recording of the show.

The issue has flared up now because in June British voters elected the first two BNP members to the European Parliament (MEPs), including Griffin.

While it seems unlikely the BNP will secure a first Westminster MP in the general election which must be held by June, experts say it and other fringe parties could benefit from the recent scandal over lawmakers' expenses.

There was another sign of high-level concern Tuesday when four top former members of the forces, including two ex army heads, signed a letter accusing the BNP of trying to "hijack" the military's reputation for its own ends.

The BNP used pictures of World War Two fighter aircraft and wartime premier Winston Churchill prominently during its European election campaign.

Griffin brushed off the "Question Time" furore but sparked fresh controversy by comparing the military top brass to Nazi generals hanged after the Nuremburg trials at the end of World War Two.

This was because of their roles in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, he said.

"Question Time" is a flagship BBC1 primetime discussion show hosted by David Dimbleby, one of British television's elder statesmen.

On the show, which attracts around three million viewers, public figures take questions from the audience on a wide range of current topics.

Others appearing alongside Griffin on Thursday include Sayeeda Warsi, a Muslim Conservative member of the House of Lords, black playwright and critic Bonnie Greer, and Justice Secretary Jack Straw.

Anti-fascist campaigners criticised the BNP this week after comments left by supporters on its website described Greer as a "black history fabricator" and said Warsi "likes to hold coffee and (halal) cake mornings.”

The BBC rejects Hain's call for the BNP leader to be dropped, arguing it has a duty to hold all politicians to account.

Aside from Hain's attack on the BBC -- the latest broadside in a bad-tempered spat between the government and the public service broadcaster -- commentators also question the decision to let the smooth-talking Griffin on.

While some doubt whether the other panellists will be capable of standing up to him, others say the very format of the show could work in his favour, because he could give populist answers to non-controversial questions.

But some of those who condemn stifling the BNP say such moves miss the point.

Fraser Nelson, editor of the centre-right Spectator magazine, wrote last week that Griffin was a symbol of the failure by mainstream politicians to tackle the concerns of "forgotten,” white working-class voters.

"The BNP success is a sign not of British racism, but of the failure of Westminster parties," he said.

A recent Sunday Times/YouGov poll said that 63 percent of Britons back the BBC's decision to invite Griffin on to "Question Time" compared to 23 percent who oppose it.

Katherine Haddon/AFP/Expatica

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