If you want to BNP to be ‘shown up’, Question Time isn’t the right format to get the results you want to see

22 October 2009

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about the appearance tonight of the British National Party on BBC Question Time. When it was announced that the BBC intended to invite Nick Griffin, BNP leader and recently elected (by the British public) Member of the European Parliament, on to Question Time there were mixed responses. Some political parties thought it was the wrong thing to do because it would give them legitimacy as a political party. Other parties were refusing to put up pannelists – refused to appear on the same stage – but as some parties agreed to participate so they all did.

Now, Im not going to express a view on the legitimacy or not of the BNP, but I do have a concern about their appearance tonight. And that’s about the format of the programme on which they’re to appear.

Let’s just think about Question Time for a minute. Five pannelists, usually three politicians, one academic or similarly opinionated person, and one more populist person (a columnist perhaps), chaired by David Dimbleby. Members of the audience ask questions and the pannelists opine and respond one by one. Perhaps there’s some more pointed questioning from the chair trying to get a response to the question.

And this is the point i’m making. It’s not the kind of format where a party like the BNP will really get probed on their policies. There’s no Paxman (not that he succeeded in the past) or Frost really making them uncomfortable, getting to the bottom of what they really mean, and what they imply. It’s a question, an answer, some political responses and questioning from other pannelists (they have their own point to make, and Question Time is about the audience questions, not politicians asking each others views), and moving on to the next point.

On Twitter this morning there’s been some debate about the show tonight. I don’t disagree that primetime TV is the place to point out to the UK what the party actually thinks – but I do think that this format is not the best one, particularly not for those people who really think the party will be shown up on tgeir views. I’m also not a person that thinks gagging works. I’m not apathetic to watching or disengaged from democracy, whether I’ve made up my own mind about them or not. Surely it’s better to let people hear what they think – some may argue to give them enough rope to hang themselves with.

Taken an example about road congestion in our cities. The BNP answers – “road congestion in our cities is a terrible problem, something must be done about it”. What do the other party members do? Disagree vocally with the BNP point of view, or sit there and nod along, agreeing with Nick Griffin? What will this type of questioning and response do for those people who are already of a mindset that could be persuaded by the other arguments they make? A similar appearance by France’s far right political party in the 1980s saw their membership soar and could so well do, or already has, for the BNP.

Question Time is a format that is about swift answers, soundbites, not detailed probing and questioning on what the politicans really mean, what the real implications of their policies are. After my recent posts on undercurrents of hate and what these legitimise, is this really the platform people really think it is to try and show the politics of this party in a truer light? I don’t think it is. Now I may be wrong, and I hope that there is real opportunity for their policies and views to be probed in depth, but I’d just like to end with a thought from Ken Livingstone on Nick Griffin: :”He comes on, says his bit, but for the angry racist, it’s the trigger that turns into an attack.”

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