Saturday, November 14, 2009

A suitably depressing conclusion to the longest by-election

"The voters are never wrong," mused BBC Scotland's political editor Brian Taylor last night, referring to the near-breakthrough by the BNP in Glasgow North-east. Perhaps it would have been closer to the mark to say "the will of the voters must always be respected". After all, if the electorate is literally never wrong, it's a touch hard to rationalise away Adolf Hitler's elevation to the office of German Chancellor in 1933 on the back of a legitimate democratic victory. Setting off a chain of events that led directly to the most catastrophic war in human history, 60 million deaths and a genocide would appear to be something of a blunder by most standards.

Opinion seemed to be evenly split last night on whether Nick Griffin's Question Time appearance had played a pivotal role in very nearly taking the BNP to third place in the by-election. My strong feeling is that it must have done, but it does not follow from there that Griffin should not have been invited onto the programme. The issue at the time had been incorrectly framed - everyone seemed to be asking "how can the broadcasters help to defeat the BNP?". Some felt that the answer was to deny the party the oxygen of publicity, others suggested that the objective could best be achieved by subjecting Griffin's policies and fairytale assertions to open and intense scrutiny. But in truth it isn't a public service broadcaster's job to fathom a way of extinguishing the threat from a perfectly legal - if odious - political party. All that should have mattered was that the party in question had demonstrated sufficient electoral strength to justify an invitation, and therefore that invitation should have been forthcoming without any consideration of the consequences. Irresponsible? No, it's the very essence of democracy. At first glance Griffin's invitation appeared to suggest the BBC agreed with that interpretation of their role - but clearly they didn't. If they had, Griffin would simply have been asked to comment on the fairly dull issues of the day like any other panellist would have been on any other Question Time edition. Probably he would have given some fairly dull answers, while being suitably frustrated that he wasn't being given a platform to talk about race. Instead, the BBC appeared to take the schizophrenic view that Griffin's democratic mandate was legitimate enough to demand that he be included on the show, but not legitimate enough to demand that he be treated on the same basis as everyone else once he was there. Paradoxically, it was this approach that gave Griffin a platform he could scarcely have dreamed of, bestowing upon him a status that was effectively greater than his fellow panellists. It was, as others have noted, "An Audience with Nick Griffin". The complacent view of many afterwards was that the strategy had paid off handsomely with Griffin making an utter fool of himself - but the electoral evidence of Glasgow NE would appear to paint a somewhat different picture. For extremist fringe parties starting from a very low base of support, there's not really such a thing as bad publicity.


  1. Absolutely spot on. Like all engineered "equality", Mr Griffins appearance on the show was a travesty.

    The questions on Question Time are chosen from those put forward in advance by the audience. But they are sifted and edited by the production team. Surely not everyone at that "specially invited" QT audience wanted to ask about race or sexuality.

    I can't help but think that there was a ratings thing going on there.

  2. A fine analysis of the QT imbroglio, James, but I disagree with your conclusion re the imact on Glasgow NE.

    In the Euro elections in May the Tories and BNP polled roughly 550 votes each, but UKIP managed over 600.

    UKIP didn't stand in the by-election, so if it's assumed most of its May votes were split between the Tories and BNP, and adjusting for the 50% increase in turnover (it was 21.6% in May!!) then 1,000 votes or so each for the Tories and BNP seems plausible without any Question Time fillip.