Why is STV so evasive about 'Scotland Debates'?

By Simon Barrow
March 31, 2011

The arrogance of large media companies in the face of calls for fairness and accountability besmirches the reputation of good journalism - and I say that as someone who has been in the business on-and-off (mostly 'on'!) for nearly 30 years.

The decision by STV (the ITV group broadcaster in Scotland) to exclude one of the five Scottish parliamentary leaders, Patrick Harvie of the Green Party, from their high profile election leaders' debate two days ago was bad enough. But their failure to show any interest in providing a reasonable explanation makes it worse.

The case for including Harvie was straightforward and compelling, whatever your political views. STV have a broadcasting responsibility to show due impartiality; the Greens have parliamentary representation and could hold the balance-of-power after the elections on 5 May; they are running ahead of the Liberal Democrats at present (Scotsman/YouGov poll, 30 March); and 63 per cent of the public want to hear from the Greens in the leaders debate (SGP/YouGov poll 29 March).

There have also been no objections from the other four parties. Indeed Labour has said it thinks the Greens should be included, and the Conservatives are "relaxed" about it. The SNP and the Lib Dems are being a bit more coy, perhaps remembering their own public statements around the time of the May 2010 Westminster election TV debates - and realising they have not a leg to stand on if they oppose a Green participant in the equivalent in Scotland.

So anyway, what does STV say about the substantive issue? Nothing, really. When I rang their press office late morning on 29 March and pointed out the first YouGov poll and the Press Association report on it that morning, the person I spoke to replied, "what poll?", before subsequently getting the point. The company had no response or press release, but offered to send a comment through, which they duly did. It read:

"'Scotland Debates' is an established format involving the leaders of Scotland's four major parties. Over the course of the six week election campaign, STV will provide appropriate coverage of other parties' campaigns, including that of the Scottish Green Party."

Not much of an effort, is it? 'Established' seems to mean ossified. One of the four major parties is polling below the one STV have decided is not 'major' enough for them. And note that they promise "appropriate" coverage. Appropriate to whom? And what about fair, one might ask?

Additionally, the company said that "the co-leader of the [Green] party, Patrick Harvie, will feature in a half hour online face-to-face interview with STV's Political Editor, Bernard Ponsonby." Fine, but irrelevant to his exclusion from the principle, headline-making and agenda-setting TV leaders' debate - and the others will be getting their Ponsonby slots too, so it is no 'balance' for 29 March.

With so many questions unanswered, I duly popped in some follow-ups for clarification. STV declined to answer them. They said, "we have nothing further to add to our previous statement" - though they did add, in response to a query about their owners' vested political interests, "STV is a publicly owned company and has no political affiliations, nor have any political donations been made." Which again isn't an answer to what was asked (see below). And in this context, 'publicly' means open to public investigation, by the way. STV is a private company.

So, for the record, here are the questions STV refused to respond to:

* Why [include] only four out of five parties with elected representation in [the Scottish] parliament? Why exclude just one party? And does 'established format' [for 'Scotland Debates'] mean unchangeable? If so, why? If not, why is the format not evolving to reflect the changing political situation and public mood?

* What does STV have to say to the 63 per cent of the Scottish public who disagree with its decision to exclude the Greens from the debate?

* How much time will the other leaders be given in face-to-face interviews by STV - in addition to their presence in the debates, from which Mr Harvie is excluded?

* When was the issue of the exclusion of one of the five parliamentary parties first raised with STV? By what process was it discussed/decided, and by whom? When were the parties consulted?

* Can you please [declare] who the owners of STV Group PLC are, and whether any STV [corporate] shareholders have links with, or have made donations to, any political parties in the last three years - and if so, which ones?

Incidentally, just a year ago STV were investigated over allegations that they allowed the Scottish Government to influence their schedules. An Ofcom report released four months later cleared them of allowing political interference within a feature series, but 18 short programmes about social issues were found to have been influenced too closely by sponsorship from government agencies and initiatives (OFCOM broadcast bulletin - STV sponsorship report, 26 July 2010).

Meanwhile, the BBC Scotland leaders' debate will take place on Sunday 1 May. Let's hope the (genuinely) publicly owned Corporation will behave a little better - though one suspects that they will say that they now cannot change their format due to a prior agreement. Even so, it's worth trying. Democracy ought to be build on fair access, not privilege and influence, and broadcasters deciding which parties they want to promote.

On the broader issue of the case for citizen-based and associational politics as a counter-weight to the hegemony of the big parties and top-down elites, see Ekklesia's 2009 report, The state of independents: alternative politics (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/research/independent_politics).

Regarding the 1 May Scottish Parliamentary elections TV leaders debate on the BBC, there is a petition here: http://www.gopetition.com/petition/43762.html


(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He is not a member of any political party. He believes passionately in political reform, economic justice and environmental sustainability, however - and would have liked to watch a Scottish election TV debate where at least one spokesperson was not taking for granted the Westminster government's assumptions about the deficit and public spending cuts.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.