The decision to invite Nick Griffin, the British National party leader onto tonight's edition of Question Time is obviously an editorial judgement - and one for which the BBC and I will certainly be called to account. But it is not a decision like the running order for this morning's Today programme or the line-up of stars on this season's Strictly Come Dancing.

Those who argue that the BBC is right to feature BNP politicians occasionally on the air but is nonetheless wrong to have invited them onto Question Time fail to understand not just the programme itself but the reality of what the BBC's central principle of political impartiality means in practice.

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 from parties with many fewer supporters, from the Scottish Socialists, and Respect to the Green party, also take their seats on the stage. Question Time is the most prominent programme of its kind on British TV and we carefully study the support gained in elections by each of the parties, large and small, before deciding who to invite and how frequently they should appear.

It is a straightforward matter of fact that, with some 6% of the vote and the election of two MEPs in this spring's European elections and with some success in local elections as well, the BNP has demonstrated a level of support which would normally lead to an occasional invitation to join the panel on Question Time. It is for that reason, not for some misguided desire to be controversial, but for that reason alone  that the invitation has been extended.

For the BBC to say to the BNP (or indeed to any political party), 'yes, you've met the objective criteria for appearing on Question Time, but we have decided that in your case it would be more appropriate if you didn't, but instead appeared on Newsnight or Panorama,' would be for us to deny them parity with other parties, presumably on the basis of our own, or somebody else's qualitative political judgement about the BNP.

That isn't impartiality, it is its opposite. It would be contrary to our obligations under the BBC's Charter and contrary, I believe, to the British public's expectations of us. It would be wrong.

Does that mean that we believe the BNP should not be challenged? Of course not. They should be challenged as tenaciously and as searchingly as any other political party  and I believe they are when they appear on the BBC. From news coverage to hard-hitting, and indeed award-winning, investigative journalism, we have probed both the BNP's stated policies and some of the views of the party's leaders and supporters which are expressed only behind closed doors.

But Question Time is the public's chance to challenge the politicians - that is why it is so important that they should sometimes be able to hear and interrogate politicians from the relative fringes as well as from the mainstream.

Political parties of course have the right to be treated fairly and evenhandedly by the BBC. But the central right we are upholding in this decision is the public's right to hear the full range of political perspectives, to hear other members of the public putting those perspectives to the test, and then to form their own conclusions. Excluding any party with demonstrable popular support from taking part in the programme would be to curtail this public right.

The case against inviting the BNP to appear on Question Time is a case for censorship  the case, in other words, that (in the opinion of those who make it) the BNP's policies are so abhorrent and so liable to sow hatred and division that they should be excluded from this form of public discourse altogether.

Democratic societies sometimes do decide that some parties and organisations are beyond the pale. As a result, they proscribe them and/or ban them from the airwaves. The UK government took exactly this step with specific parties and organisations in Northern Ireland in the 1980s.

Many of course would argue that proscription and censorship can be counter-productive and that it is usually better to engage and challenge extreme views than to try to eliminate them through suppression. My point is simply that the drastic steps of proscription and censorship can only be taken by government and parliament. Though we argued against it, the BBC abided by the Northern Ireland broadcasting ban in the 1980s and, if the BNP were proscribed, the BBC would abide by that decision too and the BNP would not appear on Question Time.

But that hasn't happened and, until such time as it does, it is unreasonable and inconsistent to take the position that a party like the BNP is acceptable enough for the public to vote for, but not acceptable enough to appear on democratic platforms like Question Time. If there is a case for censorship, it should be debated and decided in Parliament. Political censorship cannot be outsourced to the BBC or anyone else.

At the heart of public service broadcasting is the idea of public space  of programmes and services which are available to all and within which people can encounter not just ideas and attitudes which accord with their own, but ones which are utterly different from theirs and with which they may profoundly disagree. As the present debate about Question Time demonstrates, maintaining this space is sometimes difficult and controversial. It is also essential, if we really want the public to engage in the democratic debate about the great issues of the day.

(This article appeared in today's Guardian)

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  • Comment number 55. Posted by chehraze1d

    on 3 Jan 2009 12:05

    The other politicians, especially Jack Straw were more racist than the BNP leader. It is just their racism is more acceptable because it is hidden. Note how jack straw TWICE says he understand people being concerned about an increase in immigration in his constituency, ie asian immigration- yet he himself is a son of jewish immigrants.
    Politicians play the race card (and other group infighting) to keep us BUSY fighting with one another, and not pay attention to their undemocratic way of running and ruining the country with their bankers buddies who they actually serve rather than us ordinary people. Hence immigration (through instigation of wars)is designed to provide a pool of workers so that big business don't feel obliged to provide better employment pay & conditions to the British people (of any colour). Those people (including David Griffin) who fight over immigration are the useful idiots for these manipulative politicians and their big business buddies, and the BBC being on their side willingly plays its part while claiming to be a public institution. Educate yourself; there is plenty material on the internet, and refuse being the useful idiot.

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  • Comment number 54. Posted by Gareth Fox

    on 31 Dec 2009 01:42

    Having watched the Question Time under discussion I think you did the BNP in general and Mr Griffin in particular no favours as he clearly was not up to the task of defending the (in my opinion) indefensible.
    On the general question of access and free speech: the opinions that have to be protected by free speech are those nasty reviled opinions not the ones that everyone agrees with. To take a policy of proclaiming free speech for only those 'acceptable' opinions is no free speech at all. That was my long winded way of saying "Well done!"

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  • Comment number 53. Posted by nick

    on 2 Nov 2009 15:59

    This comment was removed because it broke the house rules. Explain

  • Comment number 52. Posted by nick

    on 2 Nov 2009 15:51

    This comment was removed because it broke the house rules. Explain

  • Comment number 51. Posted by terracolin

    on 26 Oct 2009 20:02

    This comment was removed because it broke the house rules. Explain

  • Comment number 50. Posted by Chris Jones - Editor

    on 26 Oct 2009 15:05

    Thanks for the response to this very important issue. It’s been a remarkable week on which to launch the blog! You may also want to have a look at some of the many other conversations that have been taking place across bbc.co.uk.

    Prior to the actual broadcast both Ric Bailey and Rod McKenzie of Newsbeat had posted on the issue. Meanwhile PM was doing its best to gauge the public’s mood as the deadline approached.

    By the morning of the broadcast, we naturally wanted to know your verdict, which is what the 5 Live team asked. Meanwhile Nick Robinson, a man who’d reported on the demonstration the night before, gave his own viewpoint. Mark Easton focused on one very particular aspect of the debate: Jack Straw’s language. And if we were in any doubt that the debate had galvanised the whole of the UK, we had comments posted from both Northern Ireland and Scotland.

    Finally, Gavin Allen gives a robust appraisal of the media’s reaction to the programme on the BBC Editor’s blog. It appears that we may be talking about the issues raised for some time to come!

  • Comment number 49. Posted by shakyandrewpb

    on 24 Oct 2009 12:09

    I'm not a BMP supporter, a regular watcher of Question time, or felt the need to complain bfore, but I tuned in on Thurday to see what this BMP rise was all about.

    See some hard hitting political debate.

    What I saw was some sort of gaged debate which turned into a "mauling" of the BNP.

    I'd just like to say I was dissapointed!

    A sad day for the BBC.

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  • Comment number 48. Posted by demijacook

    on 24 Oct 2009 09:43

    This comment was removed because it broke the house rules. Explain

  • Comment number 47. Posted by Roger

    on 24 Oct 2009 09:28

    I watched the show, I suppose I'm apolitical but I did think it was a bit of a witch hunt and don't think you stuck to your own views :-

    "Political parties of course have the right to be treated fairly and evenhandedly by the BBC."

    Not inviting him to the show may have made him a martyr but stoning him on-the-air wasn't much better and probably helped his cause.

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  • Comment number 46. Posted by townmouse

    on 23 Oct 2009 20:30

    I was initially supportive of the decision to invite Nick Griffin onto Question Time, recognizing the importance of free speech, and believing that if he was given enough rope he would hang himself. Not to invite him would, I thought, have made a martyr of him.
    In the event, I felt distinctly uncomfortable as I watched the programme. I wondered if the onslaught from audience and fellow-panellists alike would bring him a degree of sympathy even from those who abhor his racist views. I hate to say I agree with Griffin on anything at all, but he has a point when he says it was not a 'normal' Question Time. That, in the end, is what was wrong: it did not follow the usual format of allowing a broad range of subjects for debate, but instead focused on just one panellist's views, which somehow distorted and debased the programme. A racist bigot has thus been able not only to manipulate the BBC, but to claim sympathy which he otherwise would never deserve.

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