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On the platform tonight ...

Betsan Powys | 11:41 UK time, Thursday, 11 March 2010

I don't often blog on demand but Emails and comments have asked for a blog post on the Prime Ministerial debates. Plaid and the SNP joined forces yesterday to make clear their objection to being excluded from those debates. So let's go for it. Let's have a debate about THE debates. You are, after all, licence fee payers and when, one day, I'm up against the wall, never say I took you for granted.

Right: where are we?

ITV, Sky and the BBC have made known the detail of their proposals for the Prime Ministerial debates in the weeks leading up to the general election. All three will broadcast a 90-minute debate between the three main UK party leaders: Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg. They won't be a free for all. Rules have been drawn up - who can ask what of whom, how much time each leader has to respond ... and so on. They are pretty detailed and specific to these three debates.

Lots were drawn to decide in which order the debates will be broadcast. The upshot is this.

ITV go first. Their debate will contain a themed section that looks specifically at domestic matters then moves on to take in general quetsions.

Sky come next. Again there'll be a themed section, this time on international affairs.

Then it's the BBC's turn to hone in on the economy before, once again, moving on to questions that are more general.

These proposals were announced in the broadsheets emphasising agreement between the three parties and the three broadcasters. 'All parties are said to be happy' was the general gist of it. Except, of course, they were not. All three parties might be contented with the deal but Plaid Cymru in Wales and the SNP in Scotland are certainly not. Their exclusion from the platform has already turned into a substantial controversy in Scotland. That may not be as true of Wales but the issue, all the same, is controversial and very much a live one.

It's the BBC, in particular, that Plaid and the SNP have in their sights. That licence fee I mentioned earlier means, they argue, that there's an additional onus on the BBC to make sure these debates are fair not just for the political parties involved but for the audience of potential voters across the UK as a whole. That, Plaid Cymru point out, includes Wales - not that any of the three debates will be recorded in Wales. All three venues are in England.

Would their objection have come as a suprise to the BBC? It's hard to imagine it would. The BBC have announced, hand in hand with the details of the debate, a series of opportunities for Plaid to appear on air, designed to make sure the Plaid take on the issues discussed, the Plaid message, the Plaid voice is also heard.

As in past elections there'll be a Welsh leaders debate broadcast by BBC Wales in peak time. That will, as in past programmes, feature all four main Welsh parties. Who each party puts forward to appear as 'leader' in that programme is up to them. It'll be broadcast in the week leading to the election - in other words, after the BBC Prime Ministerial debate has been aired.

Immediately after the UK-wide debate is broadcast there'll be a special Welsh opt out, earlier than usual, within BBC One's News at Ten. That will feature a live interview with a senior Plaid representative.

On BBC Two in Wales, the same evening, there will be a Newsnight-type slot to discuss the debate. That will feature Plaid Cymru.

BBC network radio channels, who'll also be broadcasting the Prime Ministerial debate, are running analysis programmes immediately afterwards. Plaid will be invited to take part.

The next day Radio 4's Today programme - along with Good Morning Wales no doubt - will be reacting to the debate. Plaid will be interviewed.

What this means, says the BBC, is that every effort is being made to ensure Plaid's views will be appropriately and accurately reflected.

You may well think that's bang on. You may, on the other hand, think the BBC has got it very wrong. I've spoken to people from both camps and there is little common ground.

At the Labour party conference in Swansea recently one Welsh MP argued the case that taking the campaign as whole, he feared Plaid would - as in the past he felt - be given too many opportunities to broadcast their views in Wales by the BBC. Our conversation was informal so I won't name him but it was, he thought, ridiculous to suggest that Plaid should be inlcluded in the Prime Ministerial debates. Plaid are only contesting the 40 Welsh seats out of the 650 total in Westminster. Ieuan Wyn Jones isn't even standing in the general election, he argued so couldn't possibly become Prime Minister. Why should he have a role in the Prime Ministerial debate?

Plaid, on the other hand, point to Nick Clegg and ask what his chances are of becoming PM? To have included only Gordon Brown and David Cameron in the debates, to have held what Plaid would genuinely have to accept was a 'Prime Ministerial debates' might have put them on a sticky wicket but once Nick Clegg was put on the platform, that made a mockery of the programme title argue Plaid and strengthened the case that they ought to be there too.

The response, of course, is that the Liberal Democrats are standing in all 650 seats and so, Mr Clegg could make it Number Ten. He won't of course but he could.

So how is it fair, ask Plaid, that a crucial debate about policy that will be watched by many thousands in Ceredigion and Aberconwy and Llanelli - key seats Plaid have a chance of taking - doesn't include a Plaid politician? Can the BBC genuinely argue, they ask, that voters in a seat like 50:50 Ceredigion won't be influenced by seeing Nick Clegg included in the debate and having to tune in later to hear Plaid's point of view?

Those views will be heard, comes the riposte from those who accuse Plaid of trying to stifle discussion. They'll be heard time and again on other programmes, on other outlets. The voters of Ceredigion and Aberconwy and Llanelli will not be deprived. Neither will Plaid who must accept that UK-wide, they are not a major party.

Let me add to the picture Plaid fury that the BBC, in particular, announced the proposed details of the Prime Ministerial debates without first having a proper sit-down meeting with Plaid's Chief Executive, Gwenllian Lansdown to spell out that detail. Such a meeting has now been arranged say the BBC and will happen next week.

Get this wrong, says Ieuan Wyn Jones, and "the legitimacy and integrity of the general election result will be called into question". He went on to say at yesterday's press conference that the BBC's plans were "nothing short of a betrayal of the principles upon which the editorial integrity of the BBC is built".

Over to you.


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