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New Thinking.

  1. Election 2024
6 March 2015

The broadcasters hold firm on the TV election debates, leaving David Cameron facing an empty chair

The broadcasters are refusing to accede to the prime minister's proposals.

By Stephen Bush

The BBC, Sky News and ITV have announced that the debates will proceed as planned, regardless of whether or not David Cameron attends.

They’ve rejected the Prime Minister’s alternative proposal – which, as I blogged earlier this week, are being widely seen as a tactic to avoid the debates altogether. It raises the possibility either of Cameron being empty-chaired by the broadcasters, or being forced to attend the debates.

Labour’s tails are up. They feel that the current row is win-win. Either the Conservatives will have to sacrifice the idea that Ed Miliband is too weak to lead Britain, having so transparently fled from a direct tussle with the Labour leader or concede to that one-on-one debate that they believe will allow Miliband to showcase his best talents.

In any case, it now looks significantly more likely this afternoon that David Cameron will have to debate Ed Miliband than it did this morning.

The broadcasters’ letter to Craig Oliver, the Prime Minister’s communications director, in full:

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Dear Craig

Thank you for your letter of 4th March.

We are responding as the broadcasters’ group and as you released your letter to the press we will be making this response public too.

The broadcasters have over the past six months worked hard to ensure that our viewers have the opportunity to watch election debates in 2015.

We have done so in an independent, impartial manner, treating invited parties on an equitable basis.

We have listened to the views expressed by all parties and, as we promised from the outset, have kept evidence about electoral support, public attitudes to the debates and appropriate participation under review.

The debates were enormously well received by 22 million viewers in 2010 and our research has shown that there is a public desire and a public expectation for debates in 2015.

We have consistently set out our intention to hold three debates during the unusually long formal election campaign period 30th March to 7th May 2015.

We spaced the planned debates two weeks apart, twice the length of time between debates as compared to 2010. The dates – 2nd April, 16th April and 30th April – were first published in October 2014 and have not been changed.

We believe that the formal election period is the right time to hold election debates. It is the point at which the parties have published their election manifestos and the point at which the electorate as a whole is most engaged with discussion of election issues and the public debate about the future of the country.

In October we proposed one head-to-head debate between the two leaders who could realistically become Prime Minister and two debates between more parties.

We listened to all parties’ views on the proposals – both those initially invited and others – and we reviewed the developing evidence on electoral support and public attitudes to the debates.

In discussions the Conservatives argued for a more inclusive set of debates and in particular called for the inclusion of the Greens.

We listened to that argument and to others expressed by other parties and by members of the public. We considered evidence of increased electoral support for some parties – notably the SNP and to some degree the Greens – and looked at some evidence that there was public support for a more inclusive format in the debates.

Taking into account all these factors, we made a decision to adjust our proposal to make it even more inclusive – keeping the two party head-to-head debate but expanding the two multi-party debates to include all the main choices available to voters in England, Wales and Scotland. The parties included were: Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, UKIP, SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens.

Separately, it was confirmed that BBC Northern Ireland and UTV were planning debates including all the five separate major parties in Northern Ireland -DUP, Sinn Fein, UUP, SDLP and the Alliance Party.

The two sets of debates would enable all voters in the United Kingdom to see debates with the leaders of the main choices they were able to vote for.

We noted the Conservatives’ initial welcoming tone for our amended proposal.

On the basis of this proposal – first tabled in October – and amended to take into account changing facts and input from parties, notably including the Conservatives, we have conducted numerous meetings and conversations with representatives of all parties invited. These have taken place in an organised manner, following clear agendas and in a generally good atmosphere.

We have listened to the views of all parties as we’ve framed the rules for the 2015 debates. The draft rules which all parties have been given are based on the 2010 rules, amended for the changed circumstances of 2015 and in particular the potential participation of seven parties.

The plan – as you know – for the multi-party debates has been for two 2 hour debates, allowing sufficient time across the two programmes for all seven leaders to participate in a full discussion on a good range of the really big issues facing the country at this election.

The leaders would have the opportunity to address questions posed by the studio audience. The format would allow them to give an uninterrupted answer to the question and then would open up the debate to a moderated discussion between the leaders for up to around 17 to 18 minutes on each question.

We think this format, over the course of the two multi-party debates, will allow a proper discussion across a good range of subjects. It does, however, require two debates and a substantial allocation of time to each programme.

Once we have received any further comments from the parties on our draft detailed arrangements we will publish the arrangements as we did in 2010.

This process has all happened in a very orderly manner and we’re grateful to representatives of all the parties who’ve engaged constructively with us.

On 4th March you wrote to us tabling an idea that you had not raised in the previous six months of discussions.

There are elements of it which we welcome and elements which we don’t believe have been fully thought through.

The Conservative Party proposal – as we understand it – is for: – One debate – 90 minutes in duration – Involving seven parties – The DUP should be allowed to make its case to be included – It should take place in the week of 23rd March

The letter makes no mention of the head-to-head debate which we had previously understood the Conservatives were in favour of.

We believe the proposal for just one debate of 90 minutes duration is insufficient to cover the main election issues with seven participants.

Our 2 x 2 hour debates format will allow all seven leaders sufficient time to discuss properly a good range of the main election issues.

One 90 minute debate with seven leaders would inevitably lead to much less ground being covered, with much shorter contributions from all involved.

We welcome the fact that the Conservatives propose the same seven parties included in our plans. We have included all the main parties available as choices to all voters in England, Scotland and Wales.

We note that you say the DUP should be allowed to make its case to be included. We have already considered the DUP’s case very thoroughly. We have responded to the DUP saying that we do not believe there is any obligation on us to invite the DUP or any other Northern Ireland party to take part.

It would be unfair and partial to invite the DUP and not the other four major parties in Northern Ireland. We believe voters in Northern Ireland will be well served by the BBC Northern Ireland and UTV debates. The party systems in Northern Ireland and in Great Britain are different and our debates plan reflects that.

We welcome the fact that you have for the first time in six months indicated a seven day period in which the Conservatives would definitely join a debate.

We have given your proposal serious consideration but we don’t think it achieves the goal of providing our viewers with election debates that can properly explore a reasonably full range of issues.

We do, however, welcome the positive elements of your letter. In light of that we propose the following:

We will continue to plan for the three TV debates on 2nd April, 16th April and 30th April as discussed extensively with all parties.

Sky and Channel 4 have already said they are prepared to host the two party debate on a different date if the leaders of the Conservative and Labour parties can agree. Failing that the broadcaster preparations will continue for 30th April.

The ITV debate on 2nd April and the BBC debate on 16th April will be produced and broadcast as planned. They will both be scheduled for 2 hours in peak time starting at 8pm.

The debate on 2nd April is just four days later than the period in which you have expressed a desire to debate and is more than a month before the election.

We very much hope that all invited leaders will participate in the broadcast debates.

However, in the end all we can do – as impartial public service broadcasters – is to provide a fair forum for debates to take place.

It will always remain the decision of individual leaders whether or not to take part.

The debates will go ahead and we anticipate millions of viewers will find them valuable as they did in 2010.

Our invitations will remain open to all the invited leaders right up to broadcast.

We’ll set no deadlines for final responses. We very much hope all the leaders will participate.

The Heads of News of all four broadcasters would welcome the opportunity to meet Mr Cameron, or his representative, to discuss the debates.

Yours sincerely, Sue Inglish (BBC) Michael Jermey (ITV) Dorothy Byrne (Channel 4) Jonathan Levy (Sky)

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