The British National Party could be invited on to Question Time up to once a year if it maintains its current support levels, the BBC’s director general Mark Thompson said yesterday.
Giving evidence to the Lords Communications Committee, Thompson denied the appearance last week of BNP leader Nick Griffin on the BBC’s flagship current affairs show was about boosting viewing figures.
Griffin’s controversial appearance on the show last Thursday attracted more than eight million viewers – around three times the usual number and just over half of the potential audience.
Thompson told the committee: “No part of this decision-making related to a desire to increase ratings.”
Thompson also said it was the BBC who initiated the invite to Griffin rather than the other way round.
Asked if the BNP had made a formal application to him, he replied: “No”.
Thompson said in deciding to invite the BNP on the show, the BBC believed and was advised “that the objective criteria that we would typically look to be fulfilled if we were inviting a minor party onto Question Time had been fulfilled.
“And on the basis of that we decided to extend the invitation.”
He said that did not mean the BNP would be on every week, but very occasionally, as with other minor parties, “there will be occasions where it feels right to invite them (on the) programme.”
Pressed on how often minor parties should appear on Question Time, Thompson said there was no precise science.
He said: “I would say that we’re talking about, in the case of a party which…if it continued to receive that level of support, appearances (would) probably be no more than once a year and could be less.”
Thompson said he was involved in the decision as editor-in-chief of the BBC.
Committee chairman Lord Fowler asked Thompson what weight he put on the argument that Griffin leads a racist party, and many British citizens feel threatened.
Thompson said: “Question Time, I believe, is an important democratic forum. It’s by some margin the most widely-watched purely political programme on television in this country.
“We believe it’s important that the public who appear on Question Time have a chance to put questions to politicians from across the political spectrum and they have a right to do so.
“I do not think it’s appropriate then for me to take another layer of value judgments, so notwithstanding the electoral support, notwithstanding the legality of these parties, I’m going to either on my own authority or on the basis of what someone else has said as an opinion, to say that such-and-such a party is not suitable to appear on this particular BBC programme.”
Thompson said it was up to Parliament to ban political parties from the airwaves.
Lord Fowler asked Thompson if he thought the show was public service broadcasting at its finest or a “rather crude and unpleasant shouting match”.
Thompson pointed out that another duty he had as editor-in-chief was to potentially consider complaints after transmission and it was not appropriate at this stage to give a detailed personal assessment.
He said complaints about the programme had been “relatively small” and in the low hundreds.
Thompson was also probed on whether members of the BNP would be appearing on Radio 4’s Any Questions? and other BBC political discussion shows.
He said Griffin could appear “on any of the programmes the BBC broadcasts which deal with UK-level politics in a way where we try carefully to reflect opinion across the spectrum”.
Griffin, whose performance was widely panned last week, complained that he had been the victim of a “lynch mob” and called on the BBC to give him a second chance to appear on Question Time.
Thompson told the hearing: “The question of who should appear on programmes is not something which is done purely on an ad hoc basis…It’s something we keep under constant review and constant discussion.
“We’ve been asking ourselves fairly continuously about whether we’ve got the representation of minor parties correct.
“So the question of whether the BNP should have an invitation extended to them on Question Time has been a question that we’ve looked at over the months and years.”
Thompson said it is for the public to decide whether the programme was successful or not.
He added that it was absolutely open to political groups or members of the public to say: “I don’t like these people I don’t like their policies and therefore I don’t believe they should be heard”.
He continued: “I do not believe I have the authority to make that kind of value judgment myself.
“Question Time in many ways parallels the democratic process itself.
“Not everyone is going to agree with everything that is expressed on Question Time. That’s not how democracy works.”