Nigel Dodds is deputy leader of the DUP. Photo: YouTube screengrab
Show Hide image

BBC rejects the DUP's demand to be included in the TV debates

The Democratic Unionist Party's request to participate in the BBC's seven-way panel has been rejected.

It looks like the Democratic Unionist Party's request to be included in the BBC's seven-way televised leaders' debate panel has been rejected.

The Northern Irish party was outraged when it was not invited to participate in the broadcaster's new proposal for the debates, and wrote to the BBC demanding to be invited on. The party's Westminster representative, Nigel Dodds MP, called the party's omission "ludicrous" and pointed out that it has "more seats than Plaid, SNP & Greens", who have been invited to the debates.

But it looks like Dodds' fury has not found much sympathy at the Beeb. The Director General Tony Hall has rejected the DUP's request. The BBC reports that he told the party that he saw no reason to go back on the decision not to include them.

Replying in a letter to the party, Hall said the current panel plan complies with the BBC's impartiality obligations and so the broadcaster is not obliged to include the DUP as well. He is apparently writing a further letter to justify the BBC's decision not to include Northern Irish representation in general in the debates.

In response, the party's leader and First Minister in Northern Ireland Peter Robinson tweeted that the BBC's response was "irrational":

According to the BBC's Norman Smith, the DUP is now planning on getting lawyers involved.

It will be interesting to see how the Prime Minister responds to this development in the ongoing debate debate (the phrase "debategate" is probably not far off). He told the BBC's Today programme this week that he would like to see representation of Northern Ireland on the panel and continues to be reticent about taking part himself. Will he use Hall's decision as yet another excuse not to participate?

Update, 11.50

The BBC and ITV have released a joint statement regarding the Northern Ireland parties:

In separate letters, ITV and the BBC have written to Peter Robinson and set out the reasons for not including the DUP in either network debate. Both the BBC and UTV plan dedicated debates in Northern Ireland involving all the larger Northern Ireland parties.

The BBC’s Director-General, Tony Hall, said: “We would not be fulfilling our obligations of impartiality to the voters of Northern Ireland if we were to invite one of the Northern Ireland parties but not all the others, which also have substantial support in Northern Ireland.”

An ITV spokesperson said: “We take the view that these proposals best meet the objective of delivering a series of relevant and valuable political debates for viewers across the UK. We are satisfied that it is in the public interest to proceed with these proposals as they now stand.”

The broadcasters point out that voters who live in Northern Ireland have a different set of choices from voters elsewhere. The five major parties in Northern Ireland are all different from those in the rest of the UK. In Northern Ireland the main parties are the DUP, Sinn Fein, the Ulster Unionist Party, the SDLP and the Alliance Party. BBC Northern Ireland and UTV plan debates involving those parties and all viewers in Northern Ireland will be able to see them.

If the DUP were included in the network debates it would be necessary to include all the other major Northern Ireland parties too. Including only one, or some, of the Northern Ireland parties would be unfair and discriminatory to the rest. Including all the major Northern Ireland parties in the network programmes would mean having 12 participants - and 97 per cent of viewers, in the rest of the UK, would not be able to vote for at least five of those 12 parties. The broadcasters say that such an arrangement would be disproportionate and not in the wider interests of viewers throughout the UK.

The proposed structure of the debates is fair to all voters, letting everyone see the leaders of the major parties they can vote for:

  • In the network debates all voters in England, Wales and Scotland will be able to see all the main choices available to them on election day.
  • In the Northern Ireland debates all voters in Northern Ireland will be able to see all the main and different choices available to them on election day.

The broadcasters today reiterated that the network debates will go ahead even if any of the invited leaders decline to participate.

The broadcasters said: “We are proposing that the debates should happen within the campaign period at a time when the parties will be setting out policies in their manifestos and when the audience is fully engaged with the election. The 2015 campaign will be nearly six weeks long and there is plenty of time for three debates to be held without overshadowing the rest of the campaign.”

“The proposed dates for the network debates are 2, 16 and 30 April. The order of the debates is to be discussed with the parties. In the event that any of the invited party leaders decline to participate, debates will take place with the party leaders who accept the invitation.”

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Theresa May shows how her confidence has grown

After her Brexit speech, the PM declared of Jeremy Corbyn: "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue". 

The woman derided as “Theresa Maybe” believes she has neutralised that charge. Following her Brexit speech, Theresa May cut a far more confident figure at today's PMQs. Jeremy Corbyn inevitably devoted all six of his questions to Europe but failed to land a definitive blow.

He began by denouncing May for “sidelining parliament” at the very moment the UK was supposedly reclaiming sovereignty (though he yesterday praised her for guaranteeing MPs would get a vote). “It’s not so much the Iron Lady as the irony lady,” he quipped. But May, who has sometimes faltered against Corbyn, had a ready retort. The Labour leader, she noted, had denounced the government for planning to leave the single market while simultaneously seeking “access” to it. Yet “access”, she went on, was precisely what Corbyn had demanded (seemingly having confused it with full membership). "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue,” she declared.

When Corbyn recalled May’s economic warnings during the referendum (“Does she now disagree with herself?”), the PM was able to reply: “I said if we voted to leave the EU the sky would not fall in and look at what has happened to our economic situation since we voted to leave the EU”.

Corbyn’s subsequent question on whether May would pay for single market access was less wounding than it might have been because she has consistently refused to rule out budget contributions (though yesterday emphasised that the days of “vast” payments were over).

When the Labour leader ended by rightly hailing the contribution immigrants made to public services (“The real pressure on public services comes from a government that slashed billions”), May took full opportunity of the chance to have the last word, launching a full-frontal attack on his leadership and a defence of hers. “There is indeed a difference - when I look at the issue of Brexit or any other issues like the NHS or social care, I consider the issue, I set out my plan and I stick to it. It's called leadership, he should try it some time.”

For May, life will soon get harder. Once Article 50 is triggered, it is the EU 27, not the UK, that will take back control (the withdrawal agreement must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states). With MPs now guaranteed a vote on the final outcome, parliament will also reassert itself. But for now, May can reflect with satisfaction on her strengthened position.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.