The chattering classes may be outraged by the British National Party, but they are not the audience the BNP expects to influence.

Last Thursday (22 October), nearly eight million people watched the British National Party’s leader Nick Griffin on BBC’s Question Time. During the programme, Griffin appeared to struggle to answer some questions, such as when he attempted to explain his previous denials of the Holocaust. Yet, following the programme, the BNP claimed that a record number of people had registered to join its ranks. Analysing online media coverage of Griffin’s appearance, leading up to the programme and in the week that follows, shows that opinion was divided as to whether the appearance was good news for either the BNP, or for the BBC.

Research supplied by Echo Sonar

PRmoment commissioned research analysing online media coverage of Nick Griffin’s appearance from 15 to 25 October. It is no surprise that the research shows that a great deal of coverage was generated (3,558 mentions), which peaked two days before the show (20 October), and again, more strongly, straight after the show. The topic which generated most stories concerned demonstrations complaining about Nick Griffin’s appearance, in particular those outside the BBC. The Independent wrote on 22 October: “As the hour of Nick Griffin’s arrival inched closer, more than 800 demonstrators spilled from the pavement, bringing traffic to a standstill and catching the police off guard.”

The next most popular topic was about the amount (or lack of) support people felt towards Nick Griffin. Race and controversy were also popular subjects of discussion. One worrying aspect of Griffin’s appearance for many, was whether it made the TV programme made him appear like a victim, and again this was a popular subject of online debate.

Research supplied by Echo Sonar

One BBC employee says that in her personal opinion, Nick Griffin shot himself in the foot with his appearance, as “he was pretty vague and incoherent, and quite disturbing when trying to be funny.” However, she believes the appearance made the BBC look even worse, because the broadcaster altered the usual format of the programme to make it appear to be an attack on Griffin, “which did make people feel sorry for him.” She adds that this strategy also backfired on most of the panellists, as “they came across as trying to be too worthy and evasive when challenged about their own policies – so not very successful all round!”

Others are in agreement that the format of the programme was a mixed blessing for Nick Griffin. Louise Jack, features writer at Marketing Week, says: “Griffin looked wonky-faced, twitchy and sweaty, but he also looked almost bullied at some points.” Another part of the programme which could reflect well on the BNP was when Jack Straw was made to squirm about immigration. Jack says this was good for the BNP, “because it makes it seem like the party offers a solution, or at least a discussion of an issue that affects real people, that the other parties avoid.” And as Jack points out, it doesn’t really matter that Griffin may appear mad to most PR professionals and journalists as “he is not talking to us... and to some other people he can sound quite sane.”

Many fear that the Question Time appearance was a PR boost for the BNP, because it gave the party such a large amount of exposure. As Pete Roythorne, editor in chief at web channel meetingsreview.com, points out: “The party's not been given any breathing space until now so to have Nick Griffin on a prime TV spot would be seen by it as a major coup.” Roythorne agrees with Jack that the opinions of many who are outraged by Nick Griffin, are probably not that important to the BNP. He says: “While we may be sitting here thinking he made himself look a totally ignorant, misinformed racist, we do not represent the majority of the country and there are way too many people out there with whom he will no doubt have hit a chord. Particularly in the current economic climate. Anything that leads – allegedly – to the best recruitment drive the BNP has ever had has got to be seen as an excellent PR move.”

The BBC defence is that the BNP is a party that is getting votes, and therefore should be represented appropriately. An article in This is London on 21 October summarised the BBC defence, when the broadcaster was accused by Welsh Secretary Peter Hain that it was being “apologists” for the BNP: “The decision to have Mr Griffin on Question Time was based on the party’s success in June’s European elections, at which it won more than 940,000 votes and two seats, the BBC said.”

Whether or not the BBC was right to give Mr Griffin a platform, and whether or not this platform was more of a lion’s den, are questions that the media were happy to debate. With all the controversy that was stirred up by Griffin‘s appearance, the BNP gained plenty of free publicity (advertising value £4.2 million). And as Oscar Wilde famously said: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about”. 

Methodology

PRmoment asked Echo Sonar to analyse the UK online coverage of Nick Griffin‘s appearance on Question Time. The research period was from 15 to 25 October 2009. Metrics included trends and topics. The media analysed was all UK online sources. 


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