Stand Off Between No. 10 And Broadcasters Over Election Debates

AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis
AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis

David Cameron has been accused by Ed Miliband of “running scared” as the stand-off over the election debate between broadcasters and Number 10 continues.

The Prime Minister has rejected the idea of a head-to-head debate with the Labour leader, and says he will only take part in on debate with six other party chiefs, the Independent reports.

The spat, which has been played out in the media as Mr. Cameron’s Director of Communications published correspondence from Downing Street to the organisers for each different channel, is the latest in a series of twists and turns the Tories have been making since the talks first started.

Speaking at the Labour Party spring conference, Mr. Miliband told delegates: “This is what David Cameron used to say about TV election debates: That they were essential to our democracy. That every country apart from Mongolia had them. That he wasn’t going to have any feeble excuses to get out of debates.  And now he is doing everything he can to stop them.

“And it is on the issue of leadership debates that David Cameron’s duplicity has caught up with him. He says this election is all about leadership, all about the choice between him and me, and when it comes to a debate between him and me, he’s running scared. He’s running away.”

And in an embarrassing move for Mr. Cameron, Mr. Miliband revealed he had written to broadcasters to say, “with or without David Cameron, I will be at the debates. And every day up to these debates he will be asked: what are you hiding from? When all people will see is an empty chair, his claims of leadership will be exposed as empty.”

The BBC, Sky, ITV and Channel 4 have insisted that the debates, which have been planned in multi party meetings for months now, “will go ahead.” The plan is for two debates with the leaders of seven parties and one between Cameron and Miliband.

Should Mr. Cameron stick to his guns and only take part in one debate where the number of people participating will make it difficult for any serious points to be scored, the Prime Minister could be “empty chaired.”

They have also rejected calls by Mr. Cameron for the debates to be held before the final run in to the General Election and are insisting on a series of programs in April with the finale taking place just eight days before the election.

Conservatives have tried to dispel accusations that Mr Cameron is scared of debating the other leaders by accusing the BBC of “institutional arrogance” by trying to dictate the terms of the debates.

Downing Street said it would not back down on its “final offer” of one seven-way debate in March with Mr. Oliver, saying it was “disappointing” that broadcasters were not prepared to take up Mr Cameron’s offer.

“I am ready to discuss at your convenience the logistics of making the debate we have suggested happen,” he added in a written response to the broadcasters’ decision.

Sue Inglish, the BBC’s head of political programs, has chaired the broadcasters’ panel during the negotiations, which have included media representatives from all political parties.

She and the other heads involved wrote back to Mr Oliver, saying:

‘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….

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.’

Despite the Conservatives being the ones who keep moving the goal posts, it did not stop Philip Davies, a Conservative member of the Culture, Media and Sport select committee, accusing the broadcasters of “political bias.”

“There is no doubt in my mind that if Ed Miliband didn’t want to take part in these debates they wouldn’t be taking place.

“The BBC is a public service broadcaster and they need to be very careful about how they use their privileged position. It is getting out of hand. They are trying to dictate terms to the Prime Minister of this country.”

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg tweeted:

‘Come on you haven’t got your own way so accept it and take part.

And UKIP leader Nigel Farage, whose inclusion in the debates in the first place set the Tories into a panic, said he would be taking part in any debates he was invited to.

“I am pleased the broadcasters have stood firm,” he said, “although I do think there are too many people taking part.”

Planned debate schedule

April 2: Seven-way debate featuring David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg, Nigel Farage, Nicola Sturgeon, Natalie Bennett and Leanne Wood (ITV broadcast)

April 16: Seven-way debate featuring David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg, Nigel Farage, Nicola Sturgeon, Natalie Bennett and Leanne Wood (BBC broadcast)

April 30: Head-to-head debate featuring David Cameron and Ed Miliband (Channel and Sky News broadcast)


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