As its theme tune jangles out, David Dimbleby could announce: “Joining us tonight from Television Centre, we have Conservative peer Baroness Warsi, Labour’s justice secretary, Jack Straw, and making his first appearance on Question Time, Britain’s leading neo-Nazi, Nick Griffin.” Perhaps he will, but broadcasters have a feeble record of taking on totalitarian movements, and in ways that neither the BBC nor mainstream politicians realise, the ability of democratic Britain to expose sectarianism and call it by its real name will be as much on trial this week as the leader of the BNP.
The supposedly ferocious Jeremy Paxman turned into Barbara Cartland when he interviewed the then new leader of the BNP in 2001. “Can I ask you a simple question? If one of your children fell in love with a Muslim or an Asian, what would you do?” he began.
“I would be very unhappy about it, because I would have seen two very distinct lines with their own heritage and culture being destroyed,” Griffin replied. But, beseeched Paxman, “do you think that’s a greater consideration than the fact that they might be in love?” Griffin calmly pointed out that many Asian parents felt the same way as him because “the decision to stay with your own people is a very strong human instinct”.
I speak from experience when I say that outsiders – journalists, comedians, celebrity dons – have it easiest. We can engage in a little rabble-rousing, while politicians know that the Westminster press will accuse them of a “gaffe” if they accidentally deviate from the party line. Griffin, who has been practising his sales pitch since he addressed the Ku Klux Klan leadership in 2000, will be composed. He may be surprisingly popular because Question Time cannot just be about racism, antisemitism and links between rhetoric and violence. As a regular panellist put it: “Suppose there is a question on the transport system, and Griffin says ‘congestion in our cities is a disgrace that needs to be tackled now’, the other panellists can only nod in agreement. They cannot condemn him as a dangerous lunatic.”