The televised election debates will go ahead without any party leader who refuses to attend, the broadcasters said today.
In a joint statement confirming yesterday’s exclusive Radio Times report, the BBC and ITV said today that they will both invite seven party leaders to take part in two debates, including the three major parties, Ukip, the Greens, the Scottish National Party, and Plaid Cymru.
Channel 4 and Sky News confirmed that they plan to hold a third head-to-head debate, involving only David Cameron and Ed Miliband.
The threat to go ahead without the Prime Minister, who has appeared reticent to take part in the debates, has been controversial, with former BBC Director-General Lord Grade saying that replacing Mr Cameron with an empty chair would be a “step too far” and would breach the broadcaster’s impartiality rules.
But the current BBC boss said that there was no bar to the corporation empty-chairing the Prime Minister.
In a wide-ranging interview with Radio Times, to be published on Tuesday, Lord Hall says: “There’s nothing in any of our guidelines that says you can’t empty chair anybody in any debate.
“You have always got to do what is right on behalf of the people who pay for you.”
Lord Hall also addresses the issues of women on television, the Charlie Hebdo Mohammed cartoons, and Top Gear.
A joint statement, issued on behalf of all four broadcasters, said: “The party leaders will be formally invited to take part in these debates. In the event that any of the invited party leaders decline to participate, debates will take place with the party leaders who accept the invitation.”
The proposed dates for the debates are 2, 16 and 30 April, and the order in which they will take place is still to be discussed with the parties.
The Daily Telegraph reported that some Conservative MPs believe Lord Hall had leaked the details of the election debates.
The newspaper quoted Philip Davies, a Conservative MP and member of the culture select committee, as saying that his “crass” intervention was “too much of a coincidence for my liking”.
But Ben Preston, editor of Radio Times, said: “It’s plain wrong and crass for Philip Davies to suggest Lord Hall was the source of the exclusive Radio Times report yesterday, revealing plans for the 7-party election debates.”
“We conducted an exclusive interview with the Director General – for publication on Tuesday – and while we discussed the issue, at no stage did he disclose details of the proposed make-up of the debates. Even Mr Davies wouldn’t expect Radio Times to reveal the excellent sources for our story, but he is barking up the wrong tree.”