Broadcasters fear Prime Minister will ditch election debates for five-way YouTube contest

Video streaming giant has partnered with Daily Telegraph and Guardian to offer early debate

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The Conservatives are considering ditching the televised election debates in favour of a five-way digital contest to be streamed on YouTube, Radio Times understands. 

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The BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky News have announced plans to hold three televised leaders’ debates. But the broadcasters are becoming increasingly fearful that David Cameron, who has not yet committed to attend, may boycott the contests and instead agree to participate in a YouTube debate.

While the broadcasters have proposed two seven-way debates, including the SNP and Plaid Cymru, YouTube has put together proposals for a contest featuring only the leaders of the three main parties, together with Nigel Farage and Green leader Natalie Bennett.

The Google-owned website is working in partnership with the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian. Unlike the broadcasters, who have announced three dates in April, the consortium is prepared to accede to a key Tory demand to hold the debate before the election campaign gets fully under way. It has pencilled in a date towards the end of March.

The proposed debate will have no time limit, but will instead feature ten questions for the leaders to answer. It will have both a male and a female host  – one from the Daily Telegraph and one from the Guardian – an audience of around 100 people, and could be held in either London or Manchester.

One source close to the YouTube plans said that the fact that the three companies had adopted a flexible negotiating position, in contrast to the broadcasters’ threats to “empty-chair” leaders who did not turn up, had “kept us in the game”.

The traditional broadcasters, however, are increasingly pessimistic about the chances of Mr Cameron taking part in their debates. A senior figure at one broadcaster said: “We have been totally outplayed by the politicians and it is not looking good.”

Mentorn, the makers of Question Time, have signed up to produce the YouTube debate. If it goes ahead, as those at the heart of the project believe it will, the traditional broadcasters will be allowed to carry the debate live at no cost, with Sky News and the BBC News Channel expected to take up the offer.

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Parenting website Mumsnet and Cosmopolitan magazine have also signed up as partner organisations.