Let's not give Griffin air time

The BBC is playing a dangerous game


The timing could not be worse for the BBC. The disclosure that the British National Party leader Nick Griffin has been invited to be a member of the Question Time panel on October 22 comes hard on the heels of a highly charged appearance by two BNP activists on Radio 1’s flagship current affairs programme Newsbeat — a show not known for hard-hitting journalism.

With an election looming, the BBC finds itself at the vortex of the political debate. Speaking at the Edinburgh Television Festival at the end of August, News Corporation’s James Murdoch argued that the expansion of “state-sponsored journalism is a threat to the plurality and independence of news provision”.

Murdoch may be right when he suggests that the BBC is a commercial threat to the rest of the media because of its £3bn subvention. But he was mistaken to suggest it was state sponsored.

It guards its independence fiercely, as anyone who follows the Middle East knows, and prides itself on being a broad church.

To cap matters, the BBC provided a helpful link

Despite Tory allegations over the years that it has been too New Labour-friendly, it was recently criticised by Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw for being soft on the Tories at the Manchester conference.

Being kind to the Tories is one thing. Giving the “oxygen of publicity” to the BNP, to use Mrs Thatcher’s famous phrase about the IRA, is another.

Clearly, Ric Bailey, the BBC editor involved with Question Time, saw the controversy coming when he posted an “Editor’s blog” on September 7, first revealing the reasons for the invite to Griffin.

The blog claimed that “impartiality” — part of the BBC’s remit — was “less about mathematics and more about good judgment”. It then went on to make the mathematical case noting that more than one million people voted BNP in the recent European election, it now has two MEPs and more than 50 local councillors. The invite, it argued, recognised that level of electoral support.

It noted that the BBC cannot apply different standards to different parties and to do so would be challengeable in the courts.

Bailey’s blog was written well before the Mail on Sunday disclosed the storm over the appearance of two BNP activists in its editions of October 10. The paper noted that Newsbeat had introduced the participants as two guys who are members of the BNP, failing to mention that both Joey Barber and Mark Collett held senior posts.

Collett is a former head of BNP youth and appeared in the Channel 4 documentary Young, Nazi and Proud in 2002, in which he was filmed as saying “Hitler will live forever.” He was later tried on race hate charges and cleared.

In the Newsbeat programme, Barber questioned the background of England footballer Ashley Cole, claiming: “He cannot claim he is ethnically British.” Such observations on Radio 1, where the audience is young and less politically informed, raises serious questions about giving the BNP a national platform. The fact that more than 100 complaints were lodged indicates the offence caused.

To cap matters, the BBC website provided a helpful link to the BNP.

Among those to raise objections was Justice Minister Jack Straw, who wrote in the Guardian that the interview was a clear breach of BBC guidelines and underlined the BBC’s “shaky reporting” of the BNP. The Shadow Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt weighed into the argument saying the BBC was “sadly succumbing” to those like Griffin who “defend rights for whites with well-directed boots and fists”.

The Newsbeat imbroglio places Straw in an invidious position as he previously had agreed to appear on the Question Time panel with Griffin.

No doubt Straw is intellectually quite capable of seeing off Griffin’s views. But providing the BNP with any platform at all is dangerous. The charter may demand impartiality — but giving prime air time to bigots cannot be what the writers of the charter intended. At the very least this is matter for the BBC Trust to look at.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

    Last updated: 5:45pm, December 10 2009

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