Give viewers a red button for election debates, say Ukip

Radio Times reveals how politicians and broadcasters fell out in secret summit

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Viewers should be allowed to use red button technology to opt out of watching speeches by minor party leaders at the election debates, according to a Ukip proposal.

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Alexandra Phillips, the party’s head of media, made the suggestion during a private meeting between broadcasters and politicians to discuss plans to invite seven party leaders, including the heads of the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru, to take part in two televised debates.

The meeting, described by attendees as “fractious”, saw 16 representatives from the major broadcasters and political parties gather at Channel 4’s west London headquarters. Attendees included Craig Oliver, the Prime Minister’s director of communications, Jonny Oates, Nick Clegg’s chief of staff, and Sue Inglish, the BBC’s head of political programmes.

The proposals to hold two seven-way debates, as well as a separate head-to-head contest between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, were revealed by Radio Times a day before the gathering, last Friday, and a sizeable portion of the meeting was devoted to complaints from the politicians that the plans had leaked.

One broadcasting source said: “I think the politicians were expecting us to lead in with an apology and an explanation for the leak, but that didn’t happen, so the meeting immediately got off to a bad start.”

Ms Inglish and Ric Bailey, the BBC’s chief political adviser, were forced to deny allegations that the corporation’s Director-General, Lord Hall, had leaked the proposals, with Mr Oliver, who was joined by Tory head of broadcasting Michael Salter, said to have been particularly angry at the breach of confidentiality.

But the main thrust of the meeting was devoted to why the broadcasters had decided to invite the three minor parties to join the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Ukip, and how the debates would function.

Patrick O’Flynn, Ukip’s economics spokesman, raised doubts about how David Dimbleby, the BBC debate host, and Julie Etchingham, ITV’s anchor, would be able to manage the contributions from seven different speakers. Pronouncing himself “bemused”, he told the group: “The debates are supposed to be two hours, but under these proposals, six hours would be more realistic”.

For Labour, Douglas Alexander, the party’s election co-ordinator, and Greg Beales, Mr Miliband’s strategy chief, were worried about how the inclusion of SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon would affect the debates. Control over some election issues, such as the NHS, has been devolved to the Scottish Parliament, meaning that when those topics were discussed, Ms Sturgeon’s contributions would be of no relevance to English or Welsh viewers.

That led Ukip’s Ms Phillips to suggest the use of red button technology, to allow viewers to switch away from speeches that were of no relevance to them. The issue was not met with much enthusiasm by the broadcasters, who cited technical difficulties.

The Lib Dems, who were represented by Mr Oates and Lena Pietsch, Nick Clegg’s press chief, raised grievances about the decision to exclude their leader from the head-to-head debate between Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband.

Mr Oates is said to have appeared particularly put out, telling the broadcasters: “We are a party of government, with seven million votes at the last election, 40 per cent of the total votes won by the coalition parties. Why are we being lumped in with the smaller parties?”

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The gathering broke up without reaching any firm conclusions, and no date has been set for a future meeting. ITV was represented by Michael Jermey, the broadcaster’s director of news, and Geoff Hill, editor of ITV news, while Channel 4’s attendees were Dorothy Byrne, head of news, and Daniel Pearl, her deputy. Sky News, who will hold a debate jointly with C4, were represented by Jonathan Levy, head of newsgathering, and Esme Wren, the channel’s head of politics.