The BNP took the Question Time platform once – and it will be difficult to prevent them doing so again

Last week's appearance by Nick Griffin is not likely to be the last before the general election

Did the BBC do the right thing? On the plus side – if you find the BNP's views abhorrent and recoil at the very thought of seeing them on a BBC1 political show – Nick Griffin came out of last week's Question Time appearance very badly. The BBC was seen to withstand considerable political pressure and even the threat of court action, and the BBC Trust sensibly maintained the principle that they don't pronounce on programmes in advance. To have crossed that line would, as Richard Tait and his sub-committee said clearly, amount to a very serious threat to the BBC's independence.

So far so good. But understand the internal thinking behind the way the corporation chose to handle the BNP question and you will see that this is unlikely to be the end of the matter. The BBC began considering how to deal with the BNP – beyond routinely exposing them as racist, bigoted and the rest – in 2004 when it looked as if they might win a European Parliament seat or two. It was reasoned that, a few council seats notwithstanding, provided that didn't happen and no national representation materialised it was OK to keep them off Question Time. And that is how matters stood until May when the BNP polled a million votes and took two seats in the European Parliament.

The BBC's own logic allowed them onto the programme with two Euro seats. That point is of course debatable – the BNP would need to be covered in news and current affairs output and would get its party political broadcasts as a right, but given a platform on Question Time? Even now the BBC has left many unconvinced that such an invitation was necessary to meet impartiality requirements, bringing as it does "parity" and "equivalence" not just with other minority parties but with everyone else on the platform.

But the BBC had convinced itself that, if the BNP was excluded from the programme and chose to make an issue of it, the corporation would probably lose any resulting judicial review. But even if you believe, albeit reluctantly and maybe even wrongly, that the BNP will have to be allowed on, why dive straight in with an invitation? Well, the last thing the BBC would want is to be put through the BNP/impartiality wringer in the immediate run-up to an election. And, so the reasoning went, painful as it might be, better to get it over with now.

Understandable as that sentiment is, it is probably wrong. And you only have to look at the language the director general, Mark Thompson, used when defending his decision to air the programme to see why. He talked about Question Time as a key democratic forum (which will have surprised politicians who avoid it because they see it as superficial), said it was "wrong … to deny [the BNP] parity", and "the central right we are defending is the public's right to hear the full range of political perspectives". To round it off, he said "the case against inviting the BNP ... is a case for censorship".

And if you were the BNP you might say three cheers to that; because as night follows day, if BBC executives fail to invite the BNP on to Question Time again this side of an election, they may well find themselves in court listening to their own words being played back to them. What is more, the virtual complete absence of discussion of policy questions unconnected with the BNP on Thursday's programme will not be repeatable in any future Question Time featuring the party. Last week's appearance – which almost certainly won't be the last with a BNP representative – may well come to be seen as a key moment in the party's legitimisation, and while they have a million votes there may be precious little the BBC can do about it.


Steve Hewlett

The GuardianTramp

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