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In U.K., Political Extremism on BBC Causes Outrage

October 23, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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A heated debate over political extremism in the United Kingdom came to a head this week when the leader of the British National Party appeared on a BBC show.
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SIMON MARKS: His name is Nick Griffin, and he was the most controversial figure in Britain this week. The leader of the extreme right-wing British National Party, he espouses an agenda that includes deporting two million non-white immigrants, and preserving Britain for the British.

He has dominated headlines, after the BBC invited him to participate in one of the country’s most popular prime-time broadcasts, a political panel show called “Question Time.”

SIR DAVID DIMBLEBY, moderator, “Question Time”: This panel has been the subject of intense debate for many weeks. Tonight, finally, they face our audience, the voters.

SIMON MARKS: The BBC refused to bow to public demands for Mr. Griffin to be dropped from the broadcast. The British National Party, it said, recently enjoyed electoral success, winning two seats in the European Parliament and a seat in the local legislature that governs London.

Therefore, a top BBC executive argued, the broadcaster’s “responsibility of due impartiality” meant Griffin’s extreme views had a right to be heard, and that attempts to derail the program amounted to “censorship.”

As anti-racism protesters besieged BBC Television Centre in London last night, at one point, they breached the building’s security. Inside, members of a multicultural studio audience were giving Mr. Griffin, who was convicted in 1998 of inciting racial hatred and once said of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler that he went a bit too far, a very rough ride.

Outrage in the audience

AUDIENCE MEMBER: For just one minute, could you not think of the benefits that parents -- that my parents brought to this country, and other parents from an Asian, from an Indian, from a Pakistani background have brought?

No. The vast majority of this audience find what you stand for to be completely disgusting and reprehensible.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Completely disgusting.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: You're committed to and reversing -- and you're committed to stemming the flow and reversing the flow of immigration into the U.K., so that we revert back to a white Britain. Where do you want me to go? This is my country. I love this country. I'm part of this country.

NICK GRIFFIN, leader, British National Party: ... a shadow of a doubt, I appreciate, but if you look at some of the things I'm quoted as having said in The Daily Mail today and so on, I would be a monster. Those things are outrageous lies.

I am not a Nazi. I never have been.

DAVID DIMBLEBY: Did you deny the Holocaust? Yes, you did.

NICK GRIFFIN: I do not have a conviction for Holocaust denial.

DAVID DIMBLEBY: But you did deny it?

NICK GRIFFIN: I...

DAVID DIMBLEBY: Why are you smiling? It's not a particularly amusing issue.

Controversy sparks national debate

SIMON MARKS: Nick Griffin claimed today that he faced what he called a lynch mob on last night's broadcast. It won eight million viewers, four times the program's usual viewing figures.

In a country with no written constitution, no First Amendment, and no Bill of Rights, his appearance sparked a national conversation about how much free speech should be enjoyed by the country's extremists.

Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson is the media editor of The Financial Times.

ANDREW EDGECLIFFE-JOHNSON: There are very few guidelines. And even in other European countries, like France and Germany, there are much more stringent laws about propagating inflammatory speech. So, there is no great road map.

And this is very (inaudible) in the United Kingdom, because the BBC is a state-funded, publicly funded organization. It receives more than $5 billion of taxpayers' money every year. And, so, this is not just a private media organization deciding to give airtime to somebody with controversial views. This is an institution which is seen to reflect the views of the country in some way or another.

SIMON MARKS: Nick Griffin remains a fringe figure in British politics, with no immediate prospects of winning a general election or forming a government.

But, at a time of deepening unemployment and recession in Britain, his supporters and critics alike agree that his appearance on television last night was a watershed moment in British society, a chance for the country's extremists to swim in the mainstream.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You can hear another account of the British political drama from the chief correspondent for Reuters in London. That interview is on our Web site, NewsHour.PBS.org.