Leaders debates: BBC ‘UK parties’ claim questioned

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BBC arguments justifying the exclusions of both the SNP and Plaid Cymru from the forthcoming general election leader’s debate appear to have been undermined by House of Commons documents.  The BBC’s stance centres on their definition of Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties as ‘Major UK Parties’.

Responding to criticism of the exclusions BBC Chief Political Adviser Rick Bailey said:
“The SNP is clearly a major party in Scotland but it does not field candidates across the whole of the
UK.”

Mr Bailey justified the inclusion of Nick Clegg despite the Lib Dem leader having no realistic chance of becoming the next PM by saying that the Lib Dems “field candidates across the UK”.

The BBC has repeatedly referred to the debates as “UK-wide debates” and has said that they will be held between the “leaders of the three main UK parties”.  However, this interpretation of party status by the BBC has been dealt a major blow following revelations that the neither Labour, Tory nor the Lib Dems are deemed UK major parties by House of Comments documents.

House of Commons Library (Standard Note PC/03354 of 12 February 2009) defines major parties as follows:
“Major parties in Great Britain are defined as: Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrats and, in Scotland and Wales respectively, the SNP and Plaid Cymru. Major parties in Northern Ireland are defined as Democratic Unionist, SDLP, Sinn Fein and Ulster Unionist.”

In short, as neither Labour, Tory nor the Lib Dems will be fielding candidates in Northern Ireland then, like the SNP and Plaid, they do not field candidates across the whole of the UK.

This apparent oversight by the BBC will add weight to suggestions that the state broadcaster’s judgement has been compromised and that it is being influenced by a London centric control structure that treats the smaller constituent components of the UK as mere regions to be ignored.

Indeed the House of Commons section on Allocation of broadcasts goes on to state unequivocally that:
“The four nations of the UK will be considered separately”.  This appears to imply that UK political debates
of the kind currently being proposed by the BBC are simply not possible due to the political make up of the UK.

SKY are understood to have reached an agreement with the SNP that will allow their own debate to go ahead whilst ITV are currently having talks with the SNP.  However the BBC appear to have dug their heals in over this issue and only recently agreed to have talks with the party of government in Scotland – a meeting took place in Edinburgh on Friday.

Alex Salmond has claimed the exclusion of the SNP and Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru called into question “the impartiality of the BBC in advance of the general election”.  He has also criticised the decision to draw audience members for the three debates from within 30 miles of the English cities where they are to be filmed.

The First Minister said that this effectively excluded “the direct participation of licence fee payers from nations, regions and communities of the UK”.

Both the SNP and Plaid are believed to have discussed withdrawing their long standing support for the BBC licence fee.  In Scotland it is believed that some independence supporters have been actively considering refusing to pay the fee in protest at a perceived bias in the BBC’s political news coverage in Scotland.