The Newsbeat interview shows how shaky is the corporation's grip on the far right. It must rethink before Question Time
The BBC's invitation to Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National party – a racist organisation with known fascist roots and values – to appear on Question Time is quite extraordinary. It flies in the face of all the BBC's core values as the world's most respected broadcaster: to promote diversity in the UK, tolerance, fairness and our parliamentary democracy. It's a bitter pill for me especially – as a regular guest over the years on Question Time, and having listened to the BBC World Service as a teenager in the 1960s, then the only reliable source of news in apartheid South Africa where my parents were involved in the freedom struggle.
BBC executives have told me of their obligation to respect the right of a minority who have voted for the BNP. However, that right is already adequately upheld in BNP party election broadcasts, and when they are interviewed on political programmes such as Today or Newsnight – although the recent Radio 1 Newsbeat interview with two "young BNP members" casts serious doubt on the BBC's grip of the subject.
If the content were not distasteful enough – descriptions of the London-born England footballer Ashley Cole as "not ethnically British" and "coming to this country" passed without proper challenge – even more worrying is the revelation that these members, still introduced simply as Joey and Mark on the BBC website, are key members of the BNP hierarchy. One, Mark Collett, is the BNP's director of publicity. Would the BBC allow any other party's spin doctors to appear anonymously? The interview was in clear breach of basic journalistic practice, and of official BBC and National Union of Journalist guidelines.
While this episode underlines the corporation's shaky handling of reporting the BNP, Question Time – the BBC's premier political programme – falls into an entirely different category. There the BBC will be showcasing the BNP on a panel alongside the mainstream parties as an equally legitimate, respectable, democratic political party, when it is nothing of the kind.
Furthermore, there is a distinction between those who have voted for the BNP and the party itself. In June, at the European election that triggered this BBC decision, many voted for the BNP as a protest against the mainstream parties at the height of the MPs' expenses scandal. Few of these voters would recognise, still less endorse, the BNP's virulent racism and its discriminatory policy towards black people, Muslims and Jews in Britain. The number of people in the UK who accept the racist and fascist agenda of the BNP must be far less than 1% of the population and there is no justification for giving them such an important platform.
In considering whether to give the BNP this credibility the BBC should have weighed any rights of a minority against its obligations as the public service broadcaster to promote a tolerant society in the UK – and one that is free from racially motivated hatred or violence. Especially since the BBC's equality policy commits it to promote "equal opportunities for all, irrespective of colour, race, religion or belief, ethnic or national origins, gender, marital/civil partnership status, sexuality, disability or age". Either this is hollow rhetoric, or the BBC's own policy compels the corporation to give more weight to a tolerant majority than to a racist minority.
Like his party, Griffin likes to project an image of besuited normality, speaking for the common citizen against the liberal establishment, and the BBC appears to have bought this travesty. In fact, the BNP constitution states that its membership is open only to white people. Furthermore, a raised profile and level of BNP activity in any community increases racist violence and fear among the groups it campaigns against, principally our black, Muslim or Jewish citizens. Griffin, referring to illegal African migrants, said: "Frankly, they need to sink several of those boats." He has also said: "Yes, Adolf went a bit too far. His legacy is the biggest problem that the British nationalist movement has to deal with. It just creates a bad image."
These odious views should not have been granted a platform on Question Time. Although my cabinet colleague Jack Straw has agreed to appear with Griffin on 22 October, my argument is not with him, but with the BBC for putting ministers in the impossible position of empty-chairing the Labour party.
Granting the BNP the legitimacy it craves is a fundamental error of judgment, and BBC executives have given me no convincing evidence of any legal or broadcasting imperative. So is the BBC really saying it operates in a moral vacuum, a values-free space? That plainly cannot be right given its published diversity and editorial policies.
Freedom of speech is precious, and nobody seriously argues for the BNP to be banned. Equally the BNP consistently abuses its own freedom to deny it to others. As history shows, giving racists and fascists a platform, treating them as equals with democrats, always leads to tragedy. They need to be confronted, not appeased.
Instead, the BBC is sadly succumbing to those who would, again in Nick Griffin's obnoxious words, "defend rights for whites with well-directed boots and fists".
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