BBC and ITV refuse to allow DUP into network leaders' election debates

By staff writers
January 30, 2015

The BBC and ITV, two of the three 'big broadcasters' in the UK, along with Sky, have issued a joint statement regarding Northern Ireland parties.

The two organisations have responded to the Democratic Unionist Party's request to be included in the network leaders' election debates.

In separate letters, ITV and the BBC have written to DUP leader and Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson to set out the reasons why, they say, they will not be 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.

After widespread public protest, the broadcasters will now include the Green Party of England and Wales, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Plaid Cymru in the debates in some shape or form – alongside UKIP, the Liberal Democrats and the 'big two', the Conservative Party and the Labour Party.

That led the DUP to protest about their own exclusion, as a party with eight seats in the House of Commons, and to threaten legal action.

The BBC’s Director General, Tony Hall, now says: “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, they claim.

"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 twelve 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 twelve parties. The broadcasters say that such an arrangement would be disproportionate and not in the wider interests of viewers throughout the UK."

The BBC and ITV say that the proposed structure of the debates, to be finalised on 5 February 2015, 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 DUP is likely to argue with the broadcasters' assessment, arguing that Sinn Fein takes no part in UK governance, that the Alliance has one seat but has not asked to be included, that the SDLP has three seats but traditionally aligns with Labour, and that the Ulster Unionists have no Westminster representation.

Meanwhile, a Conservative Party commentator has called for the DUP to be included in the debates, while dismissing them as "rubbish".

Nic Conner is the Home and Social Affairs Research Fellow for the Bow Group, a generally liberal lobby group within the Conservative Party, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

However, notwithstanding further disagreement, it is now likely that the debates will take place on network TV in the general way the BBC and ITV have set out. Sky's position is less clear at present.

Simon Barrow, co-director of the politics and beliefs think-tank Ekklesia, which proposed multi-party debates and a civil society one on network TV, commented: "Thinking is clearly shifting within the major network broadcasters about the changing nature of politics across the nations of Britain and Ireland, the issue of a more participatory approach to democracy, the question of parties or leaders as the focus, and the facilitative role of network broadcasters in a multi-platform media environment.

""However you vote, it is helpful that the iron grip of so-galled 'major parties', buttressed by an non-proprtional voting system for Westminster, is being loosened. But there is still a long way to go. Whatever network television debates occur in 2015, it is surely a staging post to further reform. Politics needs to be about people, not vested interests, and a plural media – and not least a public service broadcaster – needs to reflect that, so that the spectrum of beliefs, policies and values are heard."

* Ekklesia's position: Broadening the General Election television debates: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21296

* Ekklesia comment: Network TV election debates will change more: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21398

* Joint BBC and ITV press release: http://www.itv.com/presscentre/press-releases/televised-leaders-election...

* Nic Conner: Let the Democratic Unionists into the debates (Conservative Home website): http://www.conservativehome.com/platform/2015/01/nic-conner-let-the-demo...

* 'BBC and ITV look set to expand party leader debates', Ekklesia, 23 January: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21352

* More on 2015 General Election issues and discussion from Ekklesia here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/generalelection2015

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