BBC and ITV bid for seven-way leaders’ debates

The broadcasters' new proposals will include the Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru alongside Ukip in TV election contests, Radio Times can exclusively reveal

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The Green Party, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru will be invited to join Ukip at two televised leaders’ debates, under new proposals put forward by the broadcasters.

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Radio Times has learned BBC and ITV will offer to hold identical debates featuring seven political parties under the revised plans, which were being put to politicians this afternoon. But the joint debate organised by Channel 4 and Sky News will still be a straight head-to-head between David Cameron and Ed Miliband.

The volte-face by the broadcasters, who hope to announce the new proposals tomorrow morning, comes after David Cameron threatened to veto the debates if Ukip were allowed to attend without the Greens also being included. The Prime Minister reiterated his stance at PMQs yesterday, saying: “If we are going to have one minor party, we should have all the minor parties.”

Under the original plans, announced in October, the BBC debate would have included only the leaders of the three established Westminster parties, who would have been joined by Ukip leader Nigel Farage on ITV. Channel 4 and Sky News proposed a straight battle between the only two men who could realistically become Prime Minister when Britons go to the polls in May.

While the Channel 4/Sky News proposal is unchanged, doubt remains over whether the Labour party will agree to plans for Jeremy Paxman to invigilate, because of the presenter’s self-confessed political views. Paxman said last year that he regards himself as a “one-nation Tory”, and sources close to the party said that Labour regard his inclusion as a “real problem”.

The latest plans have been hammered out between the broadcasters in a series of meetings over the past few days. The Greens are expected to be represented by their leader, Natalie Bennett, while Nicola Sturgeon, the new SNP leader, will be invited to represent the Scottish nationalists. It is not yet clear whether Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party, will be represented by their leader, Leanne Wood, who sits in the Welsh Assembly, or the party’s leader in Westminster, Elfyn Llwyd.

In a joint statement, the broadcasters said they “remain committed to providing election debates in the run up to the General Election. The debates played an important role in informing millions of our viewers in 2010 and we will continue to work with all the parties to ensure that they happen again in 2015”.

In an interview with the Radio Times, to be published on Tuesday, BBC Director-General Tony Hall discusses a wide range of issues, including the broadcaster’s decision to show the Charlie Hebdo cartoon of Mohammed, the number of women in presenting roles, and the election debates.

He said: “It seems to me to make absolute sense to have the involvement of the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, the Greens and UKIP.

“This time round the debates are going to be more important to democracy than last time round. I don’t know anyone who can call this election, therefore the notion of hearing those who are competing for your vote being tested and testing one another, is much more important than last time round.” 

Mr Hall carefully considered the risks of showing the front page of Charlie Hebdo, the French magazine that featured a cartoon of the prophet Mohammed, including the threat to BBC staff posted in Islamic countries.

The front page was shown after a ‘warning’ from Ten O’Clock News anchor Fiona Bruce. “I think in these things, context is all,” Mr Hall said. “You absolutely have to balance people’s right to know and to see versus being sensitive to a very significant and important part of the British and global population, so, as we rightly warn people if there are flashing strobe lights, we did this as well.”

Days after a House of Lords report urged the broadcaster to increase the representation of women on television news and current affairs, the Director-General repeated a pledge to boost their numbers. He said: “I want to see more women on screen, in front of the microphone and backstage.”

“It’s really important we get it right, and when I came here in the first few months I did two things; first I put Mishal Husain as a second female presenter on the Today programme, that was an issue that had gone round and round for ages.”

“Then we set up a scheme for local radio presenters….I wanted half of their breakfast programmes to be presented by female presenters. We’re at 49 per cent.”

One of the ways the near-parity in local radio has been achieved is by doubling up on presenters, which represents an extra expense at a time when the BBC is cutting budgets.

Mr Hall defended the practice, adding: “I wanted to make a difference in a pragmatic way very quickly. As a programme maker I actually like double presentation and as long as it works in programme making terms I am content. But it’s also giving talented women of all ages the chance to show what they can do, and local radio, as we all know, is one of the prime ways that talented people flow through to network radio.”

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Buy next week’s Radio Times for an exclusive interview with BBC Director-General Tony Hall. Out on Tuesday, January 27th