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A debate about debates

Brian Taylor | 12:02 UK time, Wednesday, 3 March 2010

So let's have a debate. About debates. Specifically, about the proposals for Prime Ministerial debates in the run-up to the UK General Election, now detailed by ITV, Sky and the BBC.

To recap, it has now been agreed that each broadcaster will stage a 90-minute debate featuring the three main UK party leaders: Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Detailed rules govern all three programmes.

The first debate will be screened by ITV and will contain a themed section majoring on domestic matters before moving to general questions.

The second will be broadcast by Sky: its opening theme will be international affairs.

Debate number three will be on BBC One, with the themed section spotlighting the economy.

In Scotland, a substantial controversy has arisen. The SNP object that the proposed package excludes them and, as all three debates will be staged at venues in England, also excludes Scotland.

They are critical, in particular, of the BBC, arguing that the licence fee system entails an additional obligation to offer equity across the whole of the UK.

Peak time

In tandem with the announcement of the three programmes, the BBC has announced a series of initiatives aimed at offering an opportunity for the SNP perspective to be aired.

Firstly, there will, as in past elections, be a BBC Scotland televised debate, featuring the four main Scottish parties.

This will be aired at peak time in Scotland, subsequent to the UK-wide debate.

Secondly, immediately after the BBC's UK-wide debate, there will be an early Scottish opt-out within BBC One's News at Ten, featuring a live interview with the SNP.

Thirdly, Newsnight Scotland will go on air earlier than usual that night to discuss the debate. The SNP will be featured.

Fourthly, the SNP will be invited to take part in the Today programme and Good Morning Scotland the morning after the BBC UK-wide debate.

Finally, BBC network radio channels which take the UK-wide debate will broadcast an analysis programme immediately afterwards, again featuring the SNP.

I am sure you, as respondents, will have views. Probably rather trenchant views, on either side of the argument.

'Fringe' party

Perhaps it might help to reflect upon the various competing points made with regard to this issue.

Those supporting the debate plan as it stands say Alex Salmond is neither a candidate for Westminster nor a contender for Prime Minister because his party only contests the 59 Scottish seats out of Westminster's total of 650.

Pursuing that argument, Labour MP David Cairns told GMS listeners this morning that the SNP was a "fringe minority party" in Westminster terms.

In response, the SNP says that the UK has a Parliamentary system, not a Presidential one, and that it is unfair to reach a conclusion which excludes the party which topped the poll at the last Holyrood and European Elections in Scotland.

Pursuing that point, SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson told GMS that Nick Clegg had no prospect of being Prime Minister - and yet was included within the debate.

Mr Cairns says that is because the Liberal Democrats will contest all GB seats and, thereby, Mr Clegg is a potential contender for Downing Street.

Mr Robertson says there is a requirement upon broadcasters - and particularly the BBC - to afford equity across the UK.

Those who support the planned arrangements say that the SNP will have ample opportunity to get their points across in other broadcasting arenas, not least in the televised Scottish debates.


That, they say, is the appropriate treatment for a party which has no UK-wide locus.

In response, the SNP say that the UK-wide debates will be broadcast in Scotland and will, potentially, have an influence upon Scottish voters.

A Scotland-only debate may mitigate that but does not entirely counter the imbalance created, for Scotland, by the UK programmes.

The SNP objects that the BBC, in particular, has not met the party's leadership face-to-face in advance of formulating the plan for UK debates.

The BBC says that there has been repeated contact with the SNP on the issue and that a meeting has now been arranged through Alex Salmond's office.

Finally, critics accuse the SNP of seeking to stifle discussion, of seeking to close down these UK-wide debates in pursuit of their own ends.

The SNP say their attitude is supportive of debates, that they are not seeking to prevent them taking place - but that there should be equitable treatment.

PS: On Friday, I'll be quizzing Liberal Democrat Scottish affairs spokesman Alistair Carmichael in a BBC webcast at the party's conference - please send in your questions by clicking here.


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