LONDON, U.K. — The BBC is one of those staid, correct institutions that characterize a fading era of British life. It is beloved like a slightly odd spinster. Its nickname locally is Auntie Beeb. Well, there was a small riot at Auntie's house Thursday night. Most uncharacteristic.
About 1,000 people clashed with police outside BBC Television Center in west London. The reason? Nick Griffin, head of the ultra-right, racially exclusive British National Party (BNP) was appearing on the Beeb's flagship current affairs discussion program, "Question Time." It was the first time the controversial politician had been invited onto the forum, whose panel usually consists of senior politicians from each of the three main political parties and a top-tier journalist or advocate. The protesters were furious that a man they consider a fascist was being elevated to equal status in the mainstream.
Three people were arrested, several policemen were injured and 25 protesters managed to break into the heavily secured BBC compound, only to be dragged back out again by BBC security staff. It made compelling viewing on the 24-hour news channels as did the telephone interviews with Nick Griffin, who was briefly trapped in the mob as his car tried to get to the entry gates.
It wasn't just young anti-fascist protesters who were exercised. Ever since Griffin was invited on the show more than a month ago, his presence on the August panel has occasioned running debate in the British press about free speech and whether hate speech is a reasonable limit to the ancient right of saying what you please. Free speech advocates and the management of the BBC said that as the leader of a party that had just won two seats in the European Parliamentary elections it was no longer possible to keep Griffin off. Others, like Peter Hain, a member of Prime Minister Gordon Brown's cabinet and one of the leaders of Britain's anti-Apartheid movement in the 1970s and 1980s, argued forcefully that Griffin practiced hate speech and should not be allowed on the panel. His presence would give his views the oxygen of publicity.
Among Griffin's views: The number of Holocaust dead is greatly exaggerated (there are warrants out for his arrest in France and Germany for Holocaust denial). He has called Britain a "multi-racial hell-hole" and wants Britain to return to what it was "11 years before I was born: 99 percent white." He has appeared at Ku Klux Klan rallies. His comments on Islam and homosexuality are in a similar vein.
But for many the real reason to fear a Griffin appearance was this: He is media savvy and has completely reorganized his party to make its views more palatable. Instead of speaking of white supremacy, he talks of the rights of "indigenous British people." Under his leadership, the BNP has even published a "Language and Concept Discipline Manual" for its spokesmen and recruiters to follow.
It was not easy to put together a panel to debate with Griffin. Eventually, Jack Straw, Labour's Minister for Justice, agreed to come on the show. He was followed by Chris Huhne, a leading Liberal Democrat and Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, social cohesion spokesperson for the Conservative Party.
In the end all the brouhaha in advance of the program did not lead to sparks flying on it. Griffin was pressed from all sides about his views on race, Jews, gays and what British society should look like. In one-on-one interviews he often can get away with saying, I was misquoted about the Holocaust or that black people are inferior. In this format, with his fellow panelists brandishing his quotes, or reminding viewers that they could go to YouTube and watch Griffin addressing his followers and making racist comments, he was on the defensive.
He displayed a very odd tendency to smirk like a schoolboy who has just been caught passing a dirty joke to a classmate. The host of the show, David Dimbleby, approached him like a school master. "Why do you deny the Holocaust?" Dimbleby asked.
"I don't have a conviction for Holocaust denial," replied Griffin, smirking.
"Why are you smiling?" Dimbleby said sternly. "This is a serious issue."
Later on a young Jewish man, wearing a yarmulke, asked Griffin why he derided "orthodox" opinion that 6 million Jews perished in the Holocaust by saying that it used to be "orthodox opinion that the earth is flat." Here, Griffin stumbled, "I cannot explain why I said those things."
At another point he tried to talk about his constituency. The "indigenous British" he started.
"You mean white people," interrupted Straw. This went back and forth until Griffin managed to make his point. "We are the aborigines and successive governments have practiced genocide against us."
But the killer question of the night was not addressed to Griffin, it went to Jack Straw. Was his government's immigration policy responsible for the rise of the BNP? Straw ducked the question. His political opponents did not. Yes, they said, of course Labour's open door policy toward people from the former Soviet bloc countries that joined the EU in 2004 had caused resentment. In the two years that followed 660,000 people from Poland alone came to Britain to work.
Increased immigration from Africa has been another feature of British life since Labour took office in 1997.
This was more than cheap political point scoring. Much of the BNP's vote comes from former Labour supporters. The white working class in post-industrialized Britain is still trying to find its way. Many are unemployed or underemployed. The hard truth for these Britons to learn is something most Americans understand: immigrants bring dynamic energy into a society. Most come to Britain for economic advancement and are prepared to do any work.
The perception — not accurate — of those who turn to the BNP is that somehow the Polish and African immigrants are being favored by the government. Griffin's smooth words about "indigenous British people" being discriminated against rings true. That is the reason why a fringe group was able to win a million votes in the last European election.
A million votes won't get you elected prime minister, but it does earn you the right to debate on the BBC. The real question last night wasn't: should free speech be limited to censor hate speech? It was: how could a million people vote for the party led by this smirking man?