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Protests as far-right leader makes TV debut

British National Party leader Nick Griffin feuded with fellow panelists and was excoriated by hostile audience members in a tense appearance on the BBC's "Question Time" program Thursday night.
Anti-fascist demonstrators clash with British police outside the offices of BBC in west London, Thursday. The confrontation was sparked by the scheduled appearance of British National Party (BNP) leader Nick Griffin on the BBC's political debate show 'Question Time.' Lefteris Pitarakis / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The leader of Britain's far-right party outlined his vision in a controversial television debut that critics fear could help his whites-only party ease into the political mainstream.

British National Party leader Nick Griffin feuded with fellow panelists and was excoriated by hostile audience members in a tense appearance on the BBC's "Question Time" program Thursday night.

"It was hard-going," he told The Associated Press in telephone interview after the show, describing the program as "a bit like a boxing match. I took some punches but I was able to land some punches too." Still, he complained that the audience had been stacked with minorities.

"They put us on in London where the indigenous population is in the minority so we don't have much sympathy or support," he said.

Question Time gathers Britain's leading politicians, journalists and other public figures in a panel to take questions from a studio audience. The three-decade-old program has become something of a national institution, and many have condemned Griffin's first-ever invitation to the show as awarding his far-right group an undeserved aura of political respectability.

The BBC said that, as a publicly funded broadcaster, it must cover all political parties that have a national presence. The BNP has no seats in the Britain's Parliament, but earlier this year the party won two seats in the European legislature.

No 'conviction for Holocaust denial'
The program showed Griffin defending himself against accusations that he sympathized with the ideals of Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party — but also showed him ducking the question of whether he ever denied the Holocaust.

"I do not have a conviction for Holocaust denial," he said, smiling faintly as the studio audience snickered. He later said he had changed his mind about the "figures" of the Holocaust, but then refused to explain what his previous position was.

Fellow panelist Chris Huhne, a lawmaker with Britain's Liberal Democrats party, spoke for many of the show's guests when he predicted that Griffin's credibility "is going to be seriously damaged by his performance."

"This is a person who comes from a fascist background, anyone who watches the program will see exactly what he stands for," he told the BBC after the show.

But Griffin's appearance on the taxpayer-funded program has divided the country. One government minister saying the BBC "should be ashamed of single-handedly doing a racist, fascist party the biggest favor in its grubby history."

"Our black, Muslim and Jewish citizens will sleep much less easily now the BBC has legitimized the BNP," Welsh Secretary Peter Hain said after the show's taping.

James Shields of Warwick University compared Griffin's Question Time invitation to a similar television appearance by French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1984, a groundbreaking performance which Shields said had helped soften Le Pen's image in the eyes of many French voters.

Shields said the Cambridge University-educated Griffin would, like Le Pen, see his TV appearance "as a breakthrough into mainstream media."

'Nonviolent' Klu Klux Klan
Griffin's performance was dissected in Britain's media, where most of the national papers carried his picture on their front pages Friday.

Griffin's defense of the U.K. as a "fundamentally British and Christian country" drew scattered applause, but he was jeered when he described homosexual behavior as "really creepy" and ridiculed for a reference to "almost a totally nonviolent" Klu Klux Klan. He was occasionally shouted down by members of the audience, one of whom invited him to go to the South Pole.

"It's a colorless landscape. It would suit you fine," the man said, as the audience laughed and cheered.

Outside the BBC Television Center, Griffin's appearance was met with rowdy and sometimes violent protests. Hundreds of anti-fascist demonstrators rallied outside the center, and at one point about 25 people breached a police cordon and ran into the center's lobby.

BBC footage showed some being pulled across the floor by their arms and legs by security.

"Shame on the BBC!" one female protester yelled as she was being dragged out. Scotland Yard said three officers were injured in the protests, and six people were arrested.

The BBC made no apologies for its show, saying Griffin had been subjected to tough questions.

"We remain firmly of the view that it was appropriate to invite Nick Griffin," BBC deputy director general Mark Byford said after the taping.