LONDON (Reuters) - The appearance of a far-right leader on a flagship BBC programme caused a firestorm on Friday, with rows over racism and censorship and claims it would help win support for his party in next year’s elections.
During the heated Thursday panel show, the British National Party’s Nick Griffin defended having once shared a platform with a Ku Klux Klan leader, said he had never been convicted for denying the Holocaust and criticised gays and Islam.
National newspapers on Friday were united in condemnation of Griffin with headlines such as “Bigot at Bay” and “I’m the most loathed man in Britain,” while the BNP leader accused the programme’s audience of being a lynch mob.
Analysts said Griffin’s exposure on national television would probably benefit the BNP, which won nearly a million votes, six percent of the total, and two seats in June European parliamentary polls.
“I’m sure it has unfortunately in the long term done them some good,” said Ivor Gaber, Professor of Political Campaigning at City University in London.
“The format turned into a Daniel in the lion’s den and would have created some traditional British sympathy for the underdog. We know that any attention tends to benefit parties,” he said.
Under fire from some critics for deciding to put Griffin on as a panellist with mainstream politicians, the BBC said that Question Time’s usual audience of around 2.5 million people had been boosted to eight million on Thursday night.
“This very large audience clearly demonstrates the public’s interest in seeing elected politicians being scrutinised by the public themselves ... the BBC is firm in its belief that it was appropriate for Mr Griffin to appear,” Mark Byford, deputy director of the BBC, said.
The BNP said it was unhappy about the format of the programme, which concentrated almost entirely on the party rather than dealing with Question Time’s usual wide range of issues.
“The British public ... are aghast by the display of bias from the BBC, the venom from the political class, and the sheer unfairness,” Griffin told a news conference. “That was not a genuine Question Time, that was a lynch mob.”
The BNP would be lodging a formal complaint, he said.
Welsh Secretary Peter Hain, once a vocal campaigner against apartheid, was sharply critical of the BBC, saying: “The BBC should be ashamed of single-handedly doing a racist, fascist party the biggest favour in its grubby history.”
Some 500 people, waving placards reading “Stop the Fascist BNP,” protested outside the BBC complex in London on Thursday. Six people were arrested and three police officers were hurt.
The party, which wants voluntary repatriation of immigrants, has won support in some urban areas among a white working class suffering from recession, competing for jobs and services with immigrants and disillusioned with the political mainstream.
Justin Fisher, Professor of Political Science at Brunel University, said it was a terrible night for the BNP and that Griffin had performed badly when his policies were scrutinised.
“What has created a space for the BNP is in part people not voting,” he said. “It’s a gift for parties like that, and of course they exploit rule changes such as proportional representation systems in the European Parliament.”
The BNP has no seats in the national parliament but will field hundreds of candidates in an election due by next June.
Some political commentators have noted that Jean-Marie Le Pen, veteran leader of France’s far-right National Front, used his television debut on a similar French political show in 1984 to bolster support and recognition.
Reporting by Tim Castle, Catherine Bosley and Keith Weir; writing by Peter Millership; editing by Andrew Roche