BNP Question Time as-it-happened
See how yesterday’s events transpired, with politics.co.uk’s full account of the run-up to Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time.
By Ian Dunt
11:30 – Good morning and welcome to politics.co.uk‘s coverage of the main political event this week: Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time this evening. We’ll be with you throughout the day and night, until the show ends. Our reporter at television centre will be giving us regular updates on the protests, and the efforts of anti-fascists to block Griffin’s entrance to the studios. Meanwhile, our parliamentary reporter will be bringing us all the latest reaction from Westminster. The programme is being filmed earlier than usual – at 18:30 BST rather than the usual 20:30 BST – but it will be screened at the same time as usual.
11:41 – It’s worth mentioning Ken Livingstone’s comments on the Today programme this morning, which basically describes the BNP as a health and safety issue, rather than a political party. “Unlike any other party, when Nick Griffin speaks, or when they get elected in an area, what we see is an increase in racial attacks. He comes on, says his bit, does his bit, but for the angry racist it’s the trigger that turns into an attack. And we first saw this when Enoch Powell made his ‘rivers of blood’ speech, there was a huge surge of attacks on black conductors on our buses.” And for the other point of view have a look at BBC boss Mark Thompson over at the Guardian: “The central right we are upholding in this decision is the public’s right to hear the full range of political perspectives, to hear other members of the public putting those perspectives to the test, and then to form their own conclusions. Excluding any party with demonstrable popular support from taking part in the programme would be to curtail this public right. The case against inviting the BNP to appear on Question Time is a case for censorship.”
11:56 – It’s also worth taking a look at Griffin’s interview with the Times. Among other choice nuggets he calls Barack Obama an “Afrocentric racist bigot” and thanks the ‘political class’ for giving him so much publicity. Unite Against Fascism, for the record, are expecting about 2000 people to go to Television centre today to shout abuse at him.
12:32 – For reasons of full transparency, and, you know, to give you something to read over your lunch break, here are links to some comment pieces I’ve written on the BNP: There’s nothing less British than the BNP. There is a little fascist in all of us. BNP membership is a disgrace. This, however, is news coverage and we will be covering today’s events with politics.co.uk traditional impartiality and commitment to even-handedness. Anyone who spots any bias is free to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, in exchange for a bottle of whisky. This bottle of whisky, it goes without saying, does not exist.
12:59 – Got the timing wrong. I appears the programme will be filmed much earlier than usual, at around 17:00 BST. Harriet Harman was responding to a question from Lib Dem MP Evan Harris a moment ago, in which he put to her the same criticisms made by Mark Thompson in the Guardian today – namely, that minister were outsourcing moral issues to the BBC. This is her reply, which I found somewhat ominous. It harks back to what Ken Livingstone was saying on Radio 4: “The BNP is a racist and divisive party. Their constitution prohibits from membership anyone who is not indigenously Caucasian. The BBC have made their decision and no doubt they will reflect on it once they see the outcome of it tonight.”
14:07 – Bad news for the BBC, if they’re going to get out of today without facing accusations of helping the BNP gain legitimacy. Bookmakers William Hill have just reduced the odds of the BNP winning a seat at the next general election from 10/1 to 7/2. “We had been quoting odds of 10/1 that they would win a seat at the general election ever since Mr Griffin was elected to the European parliament, but only began to take serious money for them to do so when the news of the Question Time appearance was publicised. The largest single bet was £160 at 8/1 in a Nottinghamshire betting shop. We now face a five figure payout if they do so and have had to shorten the odds accordingly,” said Hill’s spokesman Graham Sharpe.
14:12 – The Times is reporting that Ben Bradshaw, culture secretary, also has doubts about the wisdom of tonight’s event. He alluded to it last night on Radio 4’s Media Show: “I think that Question Time presents the BBC with some quite serious handling issues.” That seems to put Bradshaw in a quite distinct category of people – primarily media commentators – who argue that while it’s acceptable to have the BNP on the BBC, they should have been grilled one-on-one on immigration. The Question Time method has two major problems: firstly, it allows those on the panel to offer quick responses without much of a come back, opening the space for Griffin to offer his vague rhetorical statements without a sustained critical response. Secondly, because guest talk on a variety of subjects it makes him look more of a legitimate political figure, whose views should be taken into account.
14:30 – This just in from the prime minister, who gave Real Radio in Yorkshire an interview. “Jack Straw is a very experienced person who has had to deal with the BNP and their awful politics over a period of time. We have got a country that is diverse, where people have a lot of freedoms and choices. For a political party to exclude people on the grounds of race is completely unacceptable. Their views about mixed marriages and everything else are unacceptable for the modern world.”
14:56 – Great little piece from Steve Richards at the Independent, who argues that the BNP can only benefit from the disintegration of politicians’ reputations. Read it here. Meanwhile Scottish minister Jim Murphy has been warning Scots not to get complacent about the BNP north of the border, and pointed to ten-fold increase in support for the party.
15:08 – Things are still pretty quiet at the BBC, by all accounts. Demonstrators from the union Unite have been there pretty much all day, and hundreds of anti-fascists will arrive a little later, but for the time being all is peaceful. Tweet of the day on the subject comes from PeteThePinkBear, who wrote: “Who’s Nick Griffin? A new Family Guy character, or something?”
15:36 – There are now about 150-200 people outside Television Centre, according to our reporter. The police have made a corridor for BBC workers to get into and out of the building. We can safely presume Griffin won’t be walking down that – it would be a suicide run. Tom and Ron, 18, attending the protest, told our reporter: “They [the BNP] don’t get to use their democratic right to free speech because that’s exactly what they want to take away from other people.”15:43 – Here’s Griffin’s message to supporters on the BNP website: “Question Time is scheduled for 10.35pm tonight and will be a milestone in the indomitable march of the British National Party towards saving our country. Our violent opponents on the far left have promised to lay siege and barricade the studio venue, because they know only too well that this could be THE key moment that propels the BNP into the big time. Never before have we had the chance to present our patriotic, common sense solutions to Britain’s nightmare situation to the public at large in such a prominent fashion. I will, no doubt, be interrupted, shouted down, slandered, put on the spot, and subjected to a scrutiny that would be a thousand times more intense than anything directed at other panellists. It will, in other words, be political blood sport. But I am relishing this opportunity.” A big banner with a countdown to tonight’s show has been displayed prominently on site for the last few days, but bear in mind they did the same thing in the run-up to their court case with the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (ECHR) the other day. As it ticked away, the BNP went to the commission, offered a deal, got rejected, and then went to court and backed down instantly. This is politics.co.uk, monitoring far-right websites so you don’t have to.
15:55 – Some rather weird and wonderful things are happening over at
Alistar Campbell’s blog. He’s given it up to the wonderful and dedicated Margaret Hodge, Labour MP for Barking, which has a pretty solid BNP showing. It’s a brave move, given that she seems to suggest some of the blame for the BNP’s rise is due to the way Blairism, of which Campbell was a major part, sucked the ideology out of mainstream politics. Here’s an exert: “We’ve shied away from being bold and honest about our values. Under Tony Blair it almost became a badge of honour. Ideology no longer matters, people would say – it’s what works that counts. We were scared of losing the support of the centre ground that we need to win elections. But managerial competence is not a substitute for ideological conviction. People don’t vote for processes – whether it’s localism, competition or choice. They do want to know what we stand for. And if we don’t articulate that clearly people look to others they think share their values – single issue groups or one of the smaller political parties, including the BNP.”
16:07 – Brilliant quote from Julie Askins, demonstrator, who was talking to our reporter at the BBC. “My grandmother knocked Oswald Mosely down with her handbag so I have a lot to live up to tonight.”
16:34 – Things have become more serious at Television Centre. Protesters just broke down the barrier to the entrance. About 25 police have formed a line to stop people getting in. Several – about 30 – managed to break their way into the BBC. Many of them have already been escorted out. About six of the 30 actually got into the building, apparently.
16:42 – That was followed by a big scuffle outside the main gate. Our reporter on the scene saw one man being arrested, along with those who were carried away from the building. There are now about 300 people around the main gate shouting slogans.
16:48 – A group of protesters have now bundled onto Wood Lane and cut off the traffic. It looks like a concerted decision to adopt a different strategy, by preventing guests or the audience from making it into the studio.
16:54 – This just in from our correspondent: It looks like Griffin is already in the building. An audience member has got a photo of him driving himself in. Our reporter saw the photo and said it looked alot like him, but wasn’t ready to verify it. All the protesters are now on the road, with more joining them. It’s getting considerably livelier now, with more and more people joining the protesters.
17:12 – It has now been confirmed Griffin is inside Television Centre. Latest from our correspondent: “About 1,500 protesters now. Police are allowing them to get on with it for the main part. It seems peaceful enough apart from a few scuffles.”
17:16 – The latest advice to BBC staff: “Staff at Television Centre should stay in their offices and wear their BBC ID prominently. Security officers have instructions to challenge people without visible passes.”
17:29 – Tweetminster says there’s been 51 tweets from 24 MPs and PPCs (parliamentary party candidates) in the last 24 hours on Griffin’s appearance. Three supported the BBC, one was neutral, and all the others were against. Things became a little hairy outside Television Studio a moment ago. No-one’s quite sure what happened but it appears one of the protest organisers was arrested.
17:41 – Protesters have now been moved back so that the entrance to Television centre is open – although you’re still not going to have any luck getting down the road.
17:49 – Great video from the brilliant Don’t Panic, which shows the BNP denying access to a meeting to ethnic minority Brits but allowing white immigrants – in this case a Swedish woman – entry. Beware, there’s some tough language here.
18:16 – Our parliamentary correspondent has been chatting to MPs about the Question Time issue. Click here for the full audio file of interviews with Labour MPs Laura Moffatt and Mike Gates, and Lib Dem health spokesman Norman Lamb. Here’s some exerts – Moffatt: “I want him in front of Jeremy Paxman for an hour being asked about their politics, and for me that’s the most important thing. I want the BBC to have him on but I want them to do it in way that really drills down to what BNP politics is all about.” Gapes: “Previous BNP or National Front leaders did not get the same treatment from the BBC. And this after all is a publicly funded broadcaster.”
18:25 – Meanwhile, our reporter on the scene says things are starting to get hairy. There’s a large group trying to rush the gates. Police are getting much stricter, and she’s seen a few push people’s faces back with their hands. “It’s definitely got a lot more aggressive,” she says. “Crowd has turned into a mob. There are a few bits of banner being thrown at police.The protestors have completely turned on the police. The mood has become ugly.”
18:30 – Police have confirmed three people have been arrested. There are now alot of people out on the street – presumably making the trip after work. Police estimates are of 500 protesters, but no-one on the scene – or watching on TV – will take that seriously.
18:33 – Tough talk from Andy Slaughter, Labour MP for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush: The BBC has sanitised the BNP and are very close to actually “getting into bed with them”.
19:36 – Things have died down a bit outside Television Centre, and everyone presumes the show is either completed or finishng filming – although your guess is as good as ours. 21:30BST is one deadline, because that’s when the BBC starts sending out clips to news providers to drum up a bit more interest – as if this isn’t enough. Bit of find here – this is David Dimbleby challenging Nick Griffin during the 2006 local elections. He does pretty well, look out for Nick Robinson laughing as he forced the BNP leader round in circles. Click here then scroll down a bit to find the link.
18:46 – Despite the madness, our correspondent at Television Centre has managed to get an interview with Ealing Southall MP Virendra Sharma. Here’s what he said: “I’m here to tell the BBC that what they’re doing is wrong and it’s giving credit to that ideology which is working against us. It’s most important for a society to look at its history. The BBC and the BNP are going against that. It’s polluting it with racist ideas and that’s what we oppose and we’ll continue to oppose it until we’re successful in stopping it. Everybody who believes in the equality of society has made their point and we will continue to do that.”
19:47 – New statement from Mark Byford, deputy director general of the BBC saying the “earlier incident” had been dealt with and protesters who managed to get past the gates had been escorted from the area (he’s a bit behind our Mark). “The plans we have in place for the recording of Question Time remain in place and they’re going ahead.” That’s probably behind the times too. Filming has definitely already started and has probably already finished.
19:57 – The police have released a statement saying three officers have been injured so far today. One has been taken to hospital with a head injury, the other two were minor. They’re stilll insisting on this 500 number. Normal journalistic practise, by the way, is to take the police estimate and the organisers estimate and you’ll be doing alright if you quote something in between.
20:12 – Protesters are now moving away – en mass – from where they were gathered by the front of Television Centre, towards the Westfield shopping centre. No-one knows what’s going on. Presumably they’re looking for another entrance/exit for when the Question Time pannelists leave.
20:19 – That officer didn’t have to go to hospital after all. This just in from the police: “The officer with head injuries was treated by paramedics in the ambulance but she did not require hospital treatment.” We’re getting some tweets from people in the Question Time audience. Jack Straw and Griffin get into a fight over World War Two, apparently, with Straw saying we couldn’t have won without black and Asian soldiers on our side, and Griffin saying Straw’s father was imprisoned for being a conscientious objector. Griffin makes the point that Churchill was Islamophobic, to shouts of “disgusting”. It looks like Griffin is getting a hard time in there. Whether that damages him in the eyes of those watching on TV is another matter.
20:25 – The protesters have found their new spot at the rear entrance of the Centre.
20:58 – Another three arrests. That makes six – two for violent disorder, one for actual bodily harm, one for public order and one for assault of a police officer. Another individual was recognised as being on a warrant. There are fewer protestors now. Wood Lane has now been re-opened to traffic.
21:02 – Griffin has now left the building. Here’s what we know about the programme so far. Griffin enters to boos. At one point he repeatedly denies statements he is quoted in newspapers as saying, including that cracker about Hitler “going a bit too far”. He clearly gets a hard time. At one point, David Wooding, the Sun’s Whitehall editor, tweeted: “BNP leader Nick Griffin starting to look rattled now.”
21:10 – The first sections of film have just been shown. From what we just saw it looks like Griffin gets devastated out there. He looked nervous and stumbling as serious anger was laid on him. “I am the most loathed man in the country,” he says at one point. At one stage Baroness Warsi says: “I’m glad that this debate has taken place because actually Mr Griffin hasn’t been able to put forward his normal PR version of himself.”
21:15 – At another stage griffin lambastes the BBC as part of “a thoroughly unpleasant ultra-leftist establishment, which doesn’t even want the English to be recognised as an existing people.” That’s pretty laughable given the content of the coverage we’ve been doing today, which is primarily about people telling the BBC it’s getting into bed with Nazis.
21:21 – Chris Huhne, Lib Dem home affairs spokesman and the party’s man on the panel tonight, is on the BBC. “Anybody who watches this programme is going to be very clear about he stands for,” he says. On the decision to held the debate: “If there’s going to be any censorship then it’s parliament that should decide it and not the BBC.” Baroness Warse, who appeared for the Conservatives, is also on. “This man was very much exposed for the man that he is. He came across as deceptive, he came across as bigot,” she says. Their solidarity in the face of the far-right doesn;t last long, and now they’re casually abusing each other in typical party political fashion.
12:42 – More on those clips: The first question is on the BNP hijacking Churchill as their own. Straw answers by talking about fighting Nazi ideology, and compares the BNP to the Nazis in that their beliefs are all based on race. In a second clip Griffin says Churchill would only be accepted by his party nowadays because Churchill was Islamophobic. Griffin’s decision to discuss Straw’s father doesn’t – it hardly needs saying – get a welcome response. During another clip, Griffin is completely savaged by a member of the audience, to loud cheers. If there are any BNP members in that audience I can’t see them. Dimbleby gives him his old -peer-above-the-glasses death stare in another clip for smiling during a discussion on the holocaust. Basically, it does look like a bloodbath in there, although not necessarily in the way Griffin had expected. There’s only so much of having a room full of people tell you how awful you are that a man can take, I suppose. Hope I don’t end up feeling sorry for him.
21:55 – Another interview with Mark Byford is released, although it doesn’t expand on what we already know. “We recognise that we have to stay within the law in the content of the program and in who we invite on,” he says. But the BNP has been allowed to stand in elections, they are registered with the Electoral Commission. Who are the BBC to say once they’ve reached that threshold of support, to say ‘you’re not on’.”
21:58 – Just over half an hour until we finally get going. We’ll go into minute-by-minute coverage once it starts.
22:35 – And the time has come – about 11 hours after we started. Here we go.
22:36 – “This panel has been the subject of intense debate for many weeks. Tonight they face our audience,” David Dimbleby says, before introducing the audience. Griffin looks a little nervous already to be honest. First question: Given the world war was fought against fascism is it fair for the BNP to hijack Churchill as their own? Jack Straw delivers the answer we’ve already discussed. The BNP is distinguished from every other political party he “can think of” by the fact it’s based on race. Every other party has a “moral compass”. “We only won the Second World War because we joined in those wars by millions of black and Asian people from around the world,” he goes on.
22:40 – Straw must believe he’s gone to heaven. The crowd love him. He’s like Michael Jackson raised from the dead. It must be like a holiday from expenses. Griffin tries to justify saying Churchill would only fit into the BNP. Both world wars were about preserving British sovereignty. He’s almost doing well until he brings up the stuff about Straw’s father, which is pretty unpleasant stuff really. Fathers are off limits. Now a member of the audience dresses him down: “All you’re doing is trying to poison politics. The vast majority of this audience find what you stand for to be completely disgusting.” He’s getting such a hard time this could play into his victim rhetoric.
22:43 Dimbleby quotes him on several appalling statements on race and the Holocaust etc. Griffin: “I’d appreciate you being angry about a statement like that but I never said any such thing.” People are just laughing at him. Warsi brings up old quotes he’s used about Churchill and savages him with it. It’s the old quotes thing that’s ruining him. Say things like that and they’re going to come back and hurt you. Griffin is laughing and smiling a lot, desperate for a friendly voice. This is like a ritual humiliation, but they’re making up the ritual as they go along.
22:48 – Huhne delivers an eloquent sonnet for multi-racial Britain. It’s nice to agree with politicians once in a while. Huhne is now attacking on the Hitler “went a bit too far” line. “How did he go a bit too far, by destroying Britain’s cities?” Huhne shouts. Griffin says he never said the line. He claims fascists hate him more than anyone, because he tried to reform the party. Now he’s having a video in which he appears with the head of the Klu Klux Klan (think I’ve spelt that right) described to him. In it, he delivers a speech on how to sound moderate and then get on with the normal fascist agenda. He claims to not have been there with him, but the video evidence makes that difficult for him to sustain. He then describes the man as a non-violent member of the Klan, which prompts a great deal of laughter. He is falling apart at the seams here. It’s a car crash for him.
22:55 – He’s challenged on Holocaust denial. He claims European law won’t allow him to talk about his views. But Straw, justice secretary, and Chris Huhne, home affairs spokesman for the Lib Dems, assure him he can. Straw offers to fix it so he can express the opinion. Much laughter. Griffin says his problem with the Holocaust is a numbers game. He says a bunch of despicable things. Next he’s on Islam: “It doesn’t fit in with the equal values” of the west. Impressive passage from Griffin on how he’s not the one with the blood of Iraqis on his hands – “I’ve never killed a single Iraqi”. This is precisely the kind of rhetoric he was hoping to use tonight. Warsi is set on him.
23:00 – Warsi calmly and collectedly brings up his extraordinary views on Islam (he has some odd allies, including – and I’m not joking – Abu Hamza). Mixed in among the specific questions on his previous statements there are fundamental philosophical questions raised, including the out-of-Africa theory, rather winningly. Next question: can the BNP’s success be blamed on the “misguided” immigration policy of the government? I think that’s an attack from the left, but it’s unclear. Dimbleby is tough on Straw’s attempt to hide behind Enoch Powell on this one. He knows he has to be tough on all of them. Straw celebrates the long history of immigration to this country. Straw goes back to normal politics – ‘net reduction’, statistics, ‘points-based’ system and all that.
23:07 – Straw makes an absolute hash of it. It’s hard to work out what his point is. Warsi attacks him for his answer, which “isn’t an honest answer”. Warsi says lack of social mobility and immigration are contributing to BNP support, and implies it can be laid at the door of the government. Griffin is still nodding like a madman. It feels almost laughable to think he is considered threatening. Even if tonight does help his victim mentality and the rhetoric that surrounds that, it’s hard to imagine anyone voting for him after this. He’s completely out of his depth. People are just laughing at how he keeps nodding his head to statements which are lambasting him.
23:12 – A Caribbean woman gives Straw trouble for the way he says Afro-Caribbean, to much laughter and applause and an embarrassed apology from the justice secretary. Huhne attacks the government for getting the forecasts wrong when we took on eastern European migrants as part of EU enlargement. Normal bit of party politics going on. Dimbleby and Huhne don’t look ike they get on. Griffin tries to answer by discussing multiculturalism. Griffin actually shouts at Straw that race doesn’t matter when he asks what he means by indigenous Brits. More laughter. Everyone is just shouting at him. He then describes us as “the Aborigines here” to huge laughter. And he describes opposition to what he’s saying as “racist”.
23:18 – Griffin is asked about when he described immigration to Britain as genocide. “How appalling that you used that word in that way,” Warsi tells him. American Bonnie Greer is using humour (about human origins) to mock him. It’s actually the most effective route. He’s powerless in the face of it. “This is a question to Dick Griffin.. I beg your pardon… Nick Griffin,” an audience member says, before launching an angry, well-phrase, perfectly paced attack on the BNP leader. He earns huge applause. He’s dark skinned, and his comments that “I live here, I love this country” go down very well with the audience. “I’m very happy for you to stay here,” Griffin says. “That’s kind of you,” Greer tells him.
23:22 – Dimbleby tells Straw Frank Field’s comments on not being able to fight the BNP until we can cap the population at 65 million. Straw says that idea is authoritarian and arbitrary. And suddenly we’re taken somewhere else entirely, with a question on the Jan Moir article in the Mail which caused so much offence. Dimbleby wants to talk about something other than the BNP. Greer says the article was ugly, but she had the right to write it and the newspaper had the right to print it. Huhne agrees, on both accounts.
23:27 – Warsi is being challenged on her views on civil partnerships. She tries to evade the attack by going back to the original question, rather than answer Dimbleby’s, but he keeps trying. She says she believes people have the right to civil unions, which isn’t quite the same as saying she believes it’s right. Griffin’s turn, and now old quotes are being brought up. “A lot of people find the sight of grown men kissing in public pretty creepy,” he says. That leads to shouts of “rubbish” and “disgrace”. He presses on about ‘militant homosexuals’ trying to preach homosexuality to primary children. It doesn’t go down well, as you might imagine. Straw gives pretty much the same answer as everyone else.
23:33 – “As a homosexual I can tell you Mr Griffin that the feeling’s mutual,” an audience member says. Last few minutes. “Might this programme be viewed as an early Christmas present for the BNP?” comes the final question. That’s Hain’s old quote. Huhne gives the opinion I wrote about earlier. Greer describes her grandmother, who would not have had her British common sense ruined just by watching a TV programme with Griffin on it, she says. Warsi says the programme stopped Griffin putting forward his usual PR version of himself. Griffin denies saying “thank you auntie” to the Times. He doesn’t regard the BBC as auntie, he thinks it’s a leftist conspiracy. “I’m sure its been a large audience, so what’s the problem?” Straw says it’s been a catastrophic week for the BNP because the views of the party have been scrutinised. A lone BNP voice in the audience tries to shout at him. Straw describes Griffin as “a fantasising conspiracy theorist”.
23:38 – And that’s that. Phew. It’s been quite a day. The live blog will end now, but there’ll be comment and analysis up on site within the hour. Come back tomorrow as we look at the aftermath of today’s events.