The BBC’s controversial move to invite BNP leader Nick Griffin on Question Time was driven as much by internal politics and the desire for increased ratings as by high-minded journalistic ideals, The Sunday Telegraph can reveal.
As the debate continued this weekend over who won Thursday's Question Time debate, the BBC claimed that the programme was a vindication of its decision to invite Mr Griffin on the programme – a decision it insists was born from its obligation to show due impartiality to a legally constituted party.
The programme, which gained an audience of eight million – the largest in its 30 year history, was the culmination of years of lobbying by Mentorn, the company which produces the show – often against the wishes of members of the Question Time crew and BBC staff.
BBC executives, including its director general, Mark Thompson, repeatedly vetoed the plan, saying it would be regarded as unacceptable by the majority of viewers. David Dimbleby, the show's veteran presenter, is understood to have been torn over the issue.
Mentorn failed to respond to repeated requests for comment but a BBC insider claimed that the company persisted in putting its case to Mr Thompson, his deputy Mark Byford, Helen Boaden, the corporation's director of news, and Ric Bailey, its chief political adviser, knowing that it would give the show an unprecedented ratings coup.
"From at least 2007 onwards the makers of Question Time repeatedly asked the BBC for the BNP to be included in the show. The BBC's position was that the BNP was an anti-democratic party that should not be given a platform in a way that would treat them as mainstream politicians. But Mentorn kept pressing their case. They felt it would make great TV. Although the company was too clever to say so, it was chasing ratings and desperate to secure its contract, which comes up for renewal in about two years. They were putting a lot of pressure on BBC executives to give the go-ahead to a BNP Question Time slot, repeatedly firing off emails suggesting the time was now right."
The party's success in June's European elections, when Mr Griffin and his colleague Andrew Brons won seats to Brussels, led to a rethink by Thompson and Byford. Instead of pointing out that the BNP's vote had risen by a mere 1.3 per cent and that their electoral triumph was due to millions of Labour voters staying at home, they said that Griffin had now earned the right to a seat at the Question Time table.
Writing before the show's broadcast last week, Mr Thompson said: "The BNP has demonstrated a level of support which would normally lead to an occasional invitation to join the panel on Question Time. It is for that reason alone … that the invitation has been extended. It is unreasonable and inconsistent to take the position that a party like the BNP is acceptable enough for the public to vote for, but not acceptable enough to appear on democratic platforms like Question Time."
The BBC even argued that it would have been taken to court by the BNP had it not included it in an episode of Question Time. But the insider said: "The same figures in the BBC who are now arguing they had to have the BNP on the show were dead set against it. They used to say there were under no obligation to give the BNP a platform because they were an extremist party. Now they say they are obliged to give them a fair hearing. Where once they refused to give them the oxygen of publicity on shows like Question Time, now they say the BNP will be subject to rigorous scrutiny on those same shows."
The Question Time production team was accused of going out of its way to make the show confrontational and controversial. There are claims the studio audience was hand-picked in advance, not only to provide a cross-section of multicultural Londoners, but to include people likely to ask Griffin difficult questions, such as the Jewish schoolboy Joel Weiner and Khush Klare, the financial services director of Indian descent who drew loud cheers when he asked the BNP leader: "Where would you like me to go? I was born in this country. I love this country."
Producers were accused of abandoning the usual wide-ranging format of the programme and choosing instead questions designed to highlight the BNP's policies on race. Others were instructed to make their questions "short, sharp and confrontational" – with the word confrontational underlined on their crib sheet.
The panel members, Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary; Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the shadow minister for community cohesion; Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman; and Bonnie Greer, the playwright and broadcaster, were accused of ganging up on Mr Griffin.
But Gavin Allen, Question Time's executive editor, said the format was no different to any other episode and the subject of the questions was dictated by the audience itself.
"In all the core elements, it was Question Time as normal," he said. "The key manner in which this was Question Time as normal is that it was unpredictable. Week in, week out, none of us involved in the programme has any idea how the audience will react, what will anger or amuse them, whether this or that panellist will shine or sink."
The result, in terms of headlines and viewing figures, will have delighted Mentorn's directors. The firm is a significant player in the industry, producing award-winning dramas such as Britz and the Hamburg Cell, as well as BBC One's Panorama and Channel 4's Dispatches.
However, it was not clear what Dimbleby thought. Although he has long worked closely with Mentorn and has chosen not to comment on the decision in public, Dimbleby told colleagues he "understands the case against having the BNP on the panel".
For her part Ms Greer defended her decision to appear alongside Mr Griffin. She said: "The Left has become too smug, too complacent, too trusting in its own insular view of the world. Anyone who does not accept its outlook is too often ridiculed or simply ignored. The refusal by too many on the Left to allow air time to what are rightly considered to be disgusting, abhorrent views only allow those views to cloak themselves in a kind of self-righteous martyrdom. They become censored, mysterious, points of campaign and anger. Democracy can never flourish in the dark."
Griffin's appearance is now being regarded as a watershed, with fears that it will pave the way for the routine inclusion of BNP representatives on other BBC shows, at both local and national level, such as Radio 4's Any Questions.
The BBC's critics argue the show gave Griffin a priceless opportunity to exploit, on prime time television, the anxieties about immigration and cultural change which undoubtedly exist in Britain. Despite his numerous gaffes – failing to explain his Holocaust denial, describing the racist Ku Klux Klan as "non-violent", attacking on gays and Islam – many viewers will have been left with the impression that he is now part of the respectable mainstream.
Diane Abbott, Britain's first black woman MP, said: "What people will remember was that last Thursday was indeed 'BNP day' and the party and its views were somehow accepted into the mainstream."
James Macintyre, a former Question Time producer and now political correspondent for the New Statesman current affairs magazine, said: "Dimbleby and audience members did force some moments of embarrassment, but symbolically the damage is done: there he was in his suit, tie and poppy, on a panel alongside a Cabinet minister and the best presenter in the business, gaining false respectability. The taboo of voting BNP has been lifted."
Among the hundreds gathered outside the BBC's Television Centre in White City on Thursday night to protest against Griffin's appearance was Monty Goldman, whose father fought against Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts in the Battle of Cable Street, in 1936. While his mother took Monty, then aged four, to a café in nearby Whitechapel for his tea, Sydney Goldman joined his comrades in the ex-servicemen's contingent to physically bar Mosley's fascists from marching through a predominantly Jewish area.
Mr Goldman, now 78, white-haired and a career as an accountant behind him, jabbed a finger at the building inside which the BNP's 'chairman' was holding forth.
"I oppose the BNP not because they are against my own political beliefs, but because what they stand for and would impose on all of us is vile," explained Mr Goldman. "Griffin is worse than Mosley. Not only is he a fascist, but he also denies the existence of the Holocaust. If this were Austria he would be arrested and imprisoned for that, instead of being invited to spout his hatred at licence tax payers' expense. The BBC should be ashamed it allowed itself to be used like this."