TV bosses act over election debates deadlock

Author: By Andrew Grice, Political Editor

BBC, ITV and BSkyB bosses will meet representatives from Labour, the
Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in the next two weeks in an attempt to
reach a formal agreement on how Britain?s first-ever leaders? election
debates would be staged.

Although Mr Brown agreed in principle to pressure from the opposition parties
last month, there have been continuing doubts about whether the programmes
would take place amid divisions between broadcasters and politicians about
the format.

The three TV companies have now reached a deal amongst themselves and put a
firm proposal in writing to all three parties. The brodcasters suggest that
they each stage one debate involving all three leaders in the four weeks
before polling day. The programmes would be held before the final four days
of the campaign and would probably last for at least an hour.

Some politicians, including Mr Brown, had wanted the sessions to start well
before the election but the broadcasters believe it would be better to wait
until the campaign proper, when public interest would be at its highest. To
prevent a row between the parties over who should present the programmes,
the TV chiefs propose that it be left up to them to decide that.

They have rejected the idea of a series of two-way debates which would have
allowed a head-to-head between Mr Brown and Mr Cameron; one between Mr Brown
and Mr Clegg and one between Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg. That would have caused
divisions among the broadcasters, all of whom would have wanted to stage the
Brown versus Cameron contest.

The TV companies have made no proposal at this stage for a wider range of
debates including senior figures such as the Chancellor Alistair Darling and
his opposite numbers George Osborne and Vince Cable. Such programmes have
not been ruled out but the broadcasters want to ?nail down? the leaders?
debates to avoid being bogged down in negotiations about whether other
frontbenchers should hold their own series.

Previous attempts to organise televised debates at British elections have run
into the sand amid a failure to agree on the format. Usually, opposition
leaders have requested a TV showdown but been turned down by the prime
minister of the day. In 1997, the roles were reversed when John Major
challenged Tony Blair but the parties were unable to reach agreement on the
format of the debates and who would chair them. Labour, which enjoyed a
commanding opinion poll lead, was accused of stalling the negotiations
because it did not want to risk a debate.

Some hurdles still remain before the current negotiations succeed. The
Scottish National Party may take legal action if Alex Salmond, its First
Minister in the Scottish Government, is not allowed to take part in any
debate screened north of the border. The party insists that it does not want
to go to court and would prefer to reach agreement with the broadcasters.

The Liberal Democrats favour as many debates as possible and Labour is also
thought to be keen to involve other politicians on issues such as the
economy, public services and foreign affairs. Tory officials say they are
not against the idea, accusing Mr Brown of hindering progress by ?dithering?
over whether he would take part when Sky proposed the leaders? debates.

Supporters of the programmes insist they could help to bridge the gap between
politicians and voters in the wake of the controversy over MPs’ expenses.

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