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9 January 2015

Cameron’s threat to avoid the TV debates is a test of the BBC’s independence

Having ruled that the Greens should not be included, the publicly-funded broadcaster should stand its ground. 

By George Eaton

In threatening not to participate in the TV debates unless the Greens are included, David Cameron has called the broadcasters’ bluff. His hope is that they will now either extend their invitation to Natalie Bennett’s party, or cancel them altogether. The former would ensure the presence of a rival left-wing party to Labour and the Lib Dems (compensating for the Tories’ Ukip problem), the latter would allow him to avoid an event that he believes he has most to lose from. Having shed support to the Lib Dems following Nick Clegg’s success in the 2010 debates, Cameron does not want Ed Miliband and Nigel Farage to similarly benefit. 

His self-interested stance is a test for the broadcasters. Having collectively agreed that the Greens should not be included in the debates, do they now change their position at the whim of the Prime Minister? Or do they call his bluff by threatening to empty chair the Tories? I, like others (including Labour’s Sadiq Khan), believe that the Greens should be included in at least one of the debates. But to capitulate now would undermine the media’s independence. The Greens should be included or excluded on their own merits, not at the say-so of Cameron. 

It is a test, most of all, for the BBC. Ahead of the corporation’s charter renewal in 2016, the Tories have recently threatened to cut the licence fee, with Culture Secretary Sajid Javid declaring that “nothing is ruled out” (a stance that allows for its abolition). It is not hard to imagine some of the threats that could be privately made to the broadcaster if it refuses to play ball.

At free-spirited moments in the last four years, the Tories have revealed their instinctive hostility towards the BBC. In October 2010, David Cameron declared of the cuts to the corporation: “We’re all in it together, including, deliciously, the BBC”. A few months earlier, Michael Gove argued: “I believe in value for money. It is maybe a concept that was alien to the last government and it may not be a concept that the BBC would like to see applied to public expenditure, but I believe that it is important that the taxpayer gets protection for the money that it spent on his or her behalf.” 

Meanwhile, Labour rightly believes that Cameron’s transparent attempt to avoid the debates has undermined his personal brand (long regarded as one of the Tories’ greatest assets). As one Miliband aide told me earlier, a Prime Minister who has long traded on his “strength” has been left looking weak and scared. 

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