This year, the British National Party gained 6.26 per cent of the national vote at the European elections. That was, from their point of view, a great success, and appears to lift them from an insignificant contributor to political debate to a minority presence. They crossed the psychological threshold between those parties who field candidates, and those who have gained seats at a more than local level.
A councillor here or there on a local council may not mean very much. But to have two MEPs playing their part in representing the large regional constituencies of the North West is a different matter. It is conceivable that next year, a parliamentary constituency might return a BNP member. The question of what is to be done with their ideas begins to be asked, and the BBC has come to a particular conclusion. It has just invited Nick Griffin, the party chairman, to take part in its flagship round-table programme, Question Time.
Other parties are divided on the issue. The Labour party has a long-standing convention that its senior politicians do not debate with the BNP, and several important figures, including Alan Johnson, have already said that they would not accept an invitation on the programme.
The Conservative party, on the other hand, has said that it will be happy to field a shadow minister to debate with Griffin. The BBC is claiming that its need for impartiality actually requires it to invite the BNP.
The history of media freedom accorded to extremist parties is a strange one, and I don't think the matter is as clear-cut as the BBC says. It is certainly required to broadcast party political broadcasts by small and eccentric parties, down to those yogic flying people. The government in 1988 passed a law banning representatives of Sinn Fein/IRA from speaking on broadcast media, leading to the curious situation for some years where Gerry Adams was seen, but his words spoken by an actor. Even so, it would have been very peculiar of the BBC to have invited apologists for an active bombing campaign to appear on a discussion programme.
The situation with the BNP is a similar one. Their revolting ideology places them in a different position to other political parties. They choose the constituents whose interests they are prepared to support, or even recognise. Membership of the party is open only to what they describe as "indigenous Caucasians", leading to the piquant prospect of a case against them by the Equality Commission forcing them to accept non-whites as party members.
Some senior figures in the party have a history of genocide denial which would be illegal in many European countries, and there are clear instances from the past of statements inciting racial or religious hatred which are illegal in this one. The BBC has a responsibility towards free speech, but free speech is also limited by law. I can't think of a British political party whose representatives, before appearing on Question Time, would have to be instructed that some of their opinions could not be broadcast.
The BBC is making a mistake here. I don't believe that the BNP should be banned from the media altogether. The BBC has a clear public duty to quiz its representatives, and interrogate their policies. But there is no obligation whatsoever on the corporation to include the full range of political opinion on any one of its programmes, even Question Time. It would be sending a responsible message by refusing to let these spotty proponents of hatred sit with the grown-ups.