Recent reports in the media have indicated that the leaders of the three main London parties have reached agreement with broadcasters BBC, SKY and ITV regarding the televised leaders debates for the forthcoming general election.
The reports have also suggested that the requests from the respective national parties of Wales and Scotland for inclusion in the debates have been dismissed. The ‘Leaders Debates’ have been renamed ‘Prime Ministerial Debates’ in an attempt at justifying this exclusion of the parties from the other constituent members of the UK.
It has also been revealed that all three debates are earmarked to take place in England – with provisional broadcast dates for the 90 minute debates being: April 15, 22 and 29. Three smaller debates have been proposed for Scotland with Jim Murphy representing Labour; no formats have been worked out for these debates.
There has been unbridled joy expressed in some quarters at these exclusions, indeed in some cases they have been described as a ‘victory’. If excluding the political parties that form the governments of Scotland and Wales is a victory – then the question is; a victory for whom?
The silencing of political views through exclusion from the most popular mass medium of TV is one of the most insidious ways of ensuring maintenance of existing structures of power. Such practices were commonplace in the days of the old Soviet Union where state controlled media ensured that Soviet citizens were exposed only to that which conformed to and endorsed the views of the political forces in control at the time, such practices can still be seen today in communist China and North Korea.
Of course this decision by the London based establishment and UK broadcasters is far more subtle than the aforementioned examples but the result is much the same with people being denied exposure to alternative points of view and instead will be solely influenced by views of a chosen few.
It isn’t just the moral aspect of these exclusions that is questionable, the reasoning behind them is also highly suspect.
The main reason put forward by supporters of the exclusions is that none of the smaller parties will supply the PM at Westminster. This is actually incorrect, the truth is that any MP can become Prime Minister, regardless of party – indeed there is even a theory that one needn’t even need be an MP. These scenarios are of course highly unlikely, but they do highlight the weakness of the argument. It should also be pointed out that it is highly unlikely that Nick Clegg will find himself the next PM of the UK, but there are no plans to exclude the Lib Dems.
The other excuse given is that only parties that are major parties in a UK context should be able to take part. Plyd Cymru and the SNP it is argued are major parties only in Wales and Scotland respectively and thus can be excluded. However, when scrutinised, this argument also comes apart; for it conveniently forgets that there are actually no major UK parties. This is because neither Labour, Conservative nor the Liberal Democrats field candidates in Northern Ireland.
So, what of the debate schedule and format?
Well, each of the participants will be allowed to make an opening statement, the debate will then focus on a pre-determined theme for the first 45 minutes with the remaining 45 minutes allowing questions on any issue.
But why should Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish voters be forced to listen to debates on subjects over which neither of the candidates will exercise control? For example education and health are the two most obvious areas over which Cameron, brown and Clegg have no control in Scotland. Further, those areas that are currently reserved to Westminster may still have implications for the devolved administrations.
There are other important aspects of this exclusion that have not been addressed, one such is constitutional reform. Recent polling suggests that the English are growing increasingly resentful of what they believe to be over generous funding for Scotland. It is unlikely that any of the three candidates will challenge the widely held views that Scotland is subsidised. Who will provide the counter to this or to proposals that will undoubtedly be aired in an attempt at assuaging this English anger?
What of the proposed referendum on Scottish independence? It is all but certain that such a referendum will take place – even Labour have conceded that it will happen at some point. Whoever is to be next Prime Minister of the UK will be derelict in their duties if they fail to acknowledge that they may very well be denied the substantial resources that Scotland currently hands over to the UK Treasury.
These three debates should not be about marginalising and excluding they should be about informing and educating. Many English voters will be fascinated and interested to hear Alex Salmond make the case against Trident. Viewers deserve to hear the First Minister of Scotland argue the case for Scottish independence just as they deserve to hear Brown, Cameron and Clegg put forward their own constitutional vision.
All three broadcasters are of course bound by electoral law and these legal constraints will guide their decisions. However we are all compelled to pay the BBC licence fee and that alone should obligate the BBC to strive for a higher standard.
The BBC’s editorial guidelines on political coverage during elections clearly state: “We should make, and be able to defend, our editorial decisions on the basis that they are reasonable and carefully and impartially reached.”
It has also emerged that the BBC have refused a Freedom of Information (FoI) request from the SNP regardiing their negotiations with Labour, Tory and Lib Dems over the TV debates. SNP MP and Westminster Campaign Co-odinator Stewart Hosie who lodged the request said:
“Not content with cutting Scottish viewers out of the election the BBC are now refusing to justify themselves to the fee paying public.
“The BBC and the three London parties have carved out a deal for themselves that leaves Scotland’s viewers and voters short-changed. It is no wonder the public are raging with the BBC over the way they use the licence fee.
“The SNP has today lodged an appeal to the Information Commissioner and a second Freedom of Information request to the BBC to cover the last few months of negotiations.”