Get over it, better to flush out the whole affair

David Elstein
24 October 2009

The BBC handed the BNP a propaganda coup on Thursday, as 8 million people tuned in to the heavily publicised edition of Question Time. I have no doubt the BNP will gather more support than it loses as a result of Nick Griffin's appearance, despite his rather under-whelming performance.

But don't blame the messenger entirely. And don't be depressed by the turn of events. Whatever my other criticisms of the BBC, it was inevitable after the European elections that Griffin would at some point be invited onto Question Time. The BBC kept Churchill off the air in the thirties, and Enoch Powell in the sixties. For decades before 1968, there was no mention on the BBC of gerrymandering and discrimination in Northern Ireland. All these suppressions were acknowledged as counter-productive in retrospect.

It was also inevitable that a Griffin invitation would create a ballyhoo. He could not be eased quietly into one of the chairs. We therefore had a furious build-up to what turned out to be a highly-charged programme. Nor could the BBC treat Thursday as if it were just a standard QT session: that would "normalize" Griffin, the very charge the BBC was so keen to avoid - hence Mark Thompson's use of the word "challenge" in his defence of the invitation.

Unfortunately, this back-fired. As David Dimbleby observed at one point in the exchanges, if all the other guests were trying to put aggressive questions to Griffin at the same time, he could avoid answering any of them. As it turned out, he floundered two or three times, but the overall effect of the programme was of an unpleasant person being swamped by a sea of self-righteousness. Even the casting - Sayeeda Warsi and Bonnie Greer - was an implicit editorial swipe at Griffin. The only time the programme resembled a normal QT was when Jack Straw was forced onto the back foot over the government's immigration policy.

And that was the only time we might have got some insight into what is happening amongst the electorate, as opposed to in the studio. There have always been racists and xenophobes in our society. Stir in a significant economic downturn, and a hopelessly Panglossian ministerial view of the likely volume of (white) EU job-seekers once entry barriers were suddenly removed, and it is not surprising that a BNP finds some traction. If the Westminster expenses scandal had been fully exposed at the time of the European elections, the BNP might have obtained two million votes, rather than one million.

The deeper the dislocations in our political system (see Gerry Hassan's separate post), the more likely that simple messages will find resonance. The Daily Telegraph poll is surely a wake-up call. Griffin's change of rhetoric may have cost him some neo-Nazi slagging off, but his fudges will pick up floating voters, as well as those of traditional Labour supporters alienated by the Iraq invasion and the unquestioning endorsement of the least attractive version of capitalism.

Only a minority of those viewing on Thursday will have been BNP voters. Griffin may have lost a few of these as a result of his performance, but a public ganging-up will have done him no harm amongst people previously unfamiliar with his policies, or with the powerful critique of them widely available. The megaphone effect of broadcasting - amplified all the more in QT because of the paucity of alternative current affairs outlets on other channels - gives the likes of the BNP a temporary boost.

Get over it. Better to flush out the whole affair - his "issues", his party, him - than allow a permanent sense of "they dare not let us be heard" prevail. In due course, the short-term benefit of attention will fade (remember the SDP?), and Griffin will be forced to choose between his natural extremism with tiny support, and a more populist version of his message, which soaks up the Poujadists as well as the racists, but never rises above 10% in electoral strength. We fear that familiarity will breed enthusiasm: but we should also recognize that it breeds contempt. Let's have more confidence in democratic debate, and push Griffin back where he belongs by force of argument, not emotional spasm.

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