BBC Trust allows BNP appearance

Thursday, October 22 2009,

The BBC Trust has declined to uphold an appeal against British National Party leader Nick Griffin's scheduled appearance on tonight's edition of Question Time.

Earlier in the week, Welsh secretary Peter Hain sent a letter to BBC director general Mark Thompson warning of potential legal action should Griffin appear on the show.

The cabinet minister argued that the BNP is currently "an unlawful body" due to its white-only membership policy and so should not be allowed to feature.

Pressing the issue, Hain subsequently sent another letter to BBC Trust chairman Sir Michael Lyons expressing his concern over the corporation's decision to forge ahead with Thursday's Question Time lineup.

An "ad hoc committee" of Trustees, chaired by former Newsnight editor Richard Tait, convened yesterday to consider the complaints from Hain and an unnamed member of the public about Griffin's planned appearance.

However, the Trust declined to uphold the appeal because this would involve intervening in a BBC programme before transmission, which would in turn "undermine the editorial independence" of the corporation.

"We have decided it would be wrong for the Trust to intervene in a programme not yet broadcast - even one as plainly controversial as this. To do so would undermine the editorial independence of the BBC - something we are strongly committed to preserve," said Tait.

"Until it is broadcast, the content of Thursday's Question Time is entirely a matter for the director general acting as the BBC's editor-in-chief, and we have impressed upon him his duty to ensure the programme is fully compliant with the law and with the BBC's published editorial guidelines. Once the programme has been broadcast, any member of the public who feels it breaches the guidelines can make use of the established BBC complaints process to make their case."

Commenting on the verdict, Sir Michael said: "The BBC Trust is aware of the debate and public controversy on this issue and understands that this is a matter of considerable importance to many licence fee payers. We take our responsibilities in this area very seriously in line with the BBC's constitutional arrangements."

Despite the Trust's positive ruling, the BBC is still expected to ramp up security around tonight's Question Time, which will be filmed at British Television Centre for the first time in four years, in preparation for demonstrations by anti-fascist protesters.

Defending the controversial move, BBC boss Thompson said that the corporation holds a "responsibility of due impartiality" and that attempts to block Griffin's appearance are merely a case of "censorship".

Writing in The Guardian, he said: "Question Time is an opportunity for the British public to put questions to politicians of every ideological hue. Politicians from the UK's biggest parties appear most frequently, but from time to time representatives of parties with many fewer supporters... also take their seats on the stage.

"It is for that reason - not for some misguided desire to be controversial, but for that reason alone - that the invitation has been extended."

However, former London mayor Ken Livingstone warned the BBC that it would have to take responsibility for any "spike" in racial attacks which occurs following the appearance.

"Unlike any other party, when Nick Griffin speaks, or when they get elected in an area, what we see is an increase in racial attacks," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"He comes on, says his bit, does his bit, but for the angry racist it's the trigger that turns into an attack. And we first saw this when Enoch Powell made his 'rivers of blood' speech,
Question Time will air tonight on BBC One at 10.35pm.