LONDON – The controversial debut of Britain's far-right leader on a flagship television debate show has been a ratings bonanza for the BBC, but it's unclear whether British National Party chief Nick Griffin gained from all the attention.
About 8 million people watched Griffin slam Islam as a wicked faith, express his disgust at homosexuals and defend the Ku Klux Klan on the BBC's "Question Time" program on Thursday — as much as quadruple the show's usual audience.
The 30-year-old Question Time program gathers Britain's leading public figures in a panel to take questions on current events from a studio audience. However, much of Thursday night's show was devoted to Griffin's attempts to shake allegations of Nazi sympathies and Holocaust denial.
Pundits said his performance exposed him as a political novice, with one fellow panelist reportedly saying Griffin was shaking under the pressure. Griffin acknowledged the show was "hard-going," telling The Associated Press afterward that the taping had been "a bit like a boxing match."
The BNP said it has recorded 15 million hits to its Web site in the past three days, amid a furor over Griffin's appearance, and that 3,000 people have signed up to become new members. The figures could not be independently verified.
An editorial in the left-wing Guardian newspaper warned that the show could help the University of Cambridge-educated radical "inch away from the margins."
But many others said Griffin had self-destructed.
"Griffin looked exactly what he is: A pathetic bigot whose only policy is to ask voters to drink from the poisoned well of racism," The Sun, Britain's top-selling daily, said in its editorial.
The Whites-only BNP opposes immigration and claims to fight for "indigenous" Britons. Griffin has a conviction for racial hatred and has denied the Holocaust in the past.
But the party has tried to shed its thuggish image and enter the political mainstream. This year it won two European Union parliament seats, gaining 6 percent of British votes in European polls. It has no seats in the British Parliament.
Britain's Higher Education Minister David Lammy said that U.S.-born playwright Bonnie Greer, a panelist on the show who repeatedly lectured Griffin on British history and the KKK, said Griffin "was trembling as he sat next to her."
James Shields of Warwick University, who has studied the rise of French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, said Friday that Griffin succeeded on one level — by sharing a platform with prominent mainstream figures — but had probably fallen short of attracting new supporters to his policies.
"It was a watershed in terms of gaining acceptability," Shields said. "But I'm not sure people came away from it feeling they know him and his policies better."
BNP spokesman John Walker said he was happy with the ongoing debate over Griffin's performance.
"It'll keep us in the headlines," he said.