What is going on with the 2015 General Election TV debates?

As David Cameron apparently refuses to agree to three separate televised debates, RadioTimes.com attempts to unpick the party political puzzle...

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Why is everyone talking about the TV debates? 

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The debate about the, er, debates rumbles on with agreement about what is going to happen mired in rancour and a stand-off between the main party leaders.

The latest development has seen Downing Street insist that David Cameron will take part in one televised leader debate, not three as proposed by broadcasters. He also wants a single seven-way debate with the leaders of Labour, the Lib Dems, UKIP, the Green Party, Plaid Cymru and the SNP. This, apparently, is a “final offer” from the PM which the broadcasters (the BBC, ITV, Sky and Channel 4) are mulling over. Apparently, the feeling within the broadcasters is that they are determined to press ahead with the debate and are reluctant to allow one party to dictate terms…

What has gone wrong?

In his email to Sue Inglish, the chair of the debates committee, Cameron’s PR man Craig Oliver highlights the “chaos” over the wrangling. He has a point. Negotiations over the debates has seen none of the main parties agree the format or the number of debates.

Why was it so much easier in 2010?

Essentially the main party leaders were in agreement. They were first proposed by David Cameron and Nick Clegg, with then Prime Minister Gordon Brown acquiescing a bit later on after he realised he needed to make up ground in the polls. It was easier to negotiate because the minor parties like UKIP and the Greens had less electoral strength back then. Now everyone wants in on the act and it is a delicate balancing act.

What were the original proposals for this year’s debates?

The broadcasters have suggested three debates – two seven-way debates and a head-to-head between the PM and Ed Miliband. They were due to kick off on April 2nd with a seven-way debate on ITV moderated by news anchor Julie Etchingham.

The ITV debate will be followed on April 16th by a contest between the same leaders broadcast on BBC1 and hosted by David Dimbleby.

The final instalment will be a head-to-head between Conservative leader David Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband, simulcast on Sky 1 and Channel 4 on April 30th. The two-way contest will be moderated by former Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman with Sky’s Kay Burley introducing the programme and presenting the post-debate analysis.

However none of this had been agreed by Cameron.

What’s today’s update from Number 10? What does it mean?

Cameron appears irritated by Labour leader Ed Miliband’s recent challenge to meet Cameron “any time, any place, anywhere” during an interview with Sky News.  According to commentators Cameron probably has the most to lose from a debate, especially one involving Nigel Farage. If The UKIP leader outperforms him (and he is a good performer) it could see votes leaking from the Tories to the men in purple.

Where do the other party leaders stand?

Ed Miliband is apparently not happy. The chair of Labour’s general election campaign Douglas Alexander has now declared the PM’s final offer “outrageous”.

“We continue to support the broadcasters proposals, including for seven-way debates alongside a two-way debate,” said Alexander. “But this is an outrageous attempt from the prime minister to bully the broadcasters into dropping their proposals for a head-to-head debate between David Cameron and Ed Miliband.”

Nick Clegg is also annoyed. “The British public want the debates so let’s get on with it,” he tweeted. “Stop holding them to ransom by trying to dictate the terms.”

Could the debates take place without Cameron? How?

Yes, they could. And they might. Broadcasters are subject to very tight impartiality rules in the weeks leading up to a general election – the so-called period of “purdah” or “election window” which in this instance lasts from March 30 to polling day on May 7. The rules are mainly designed to stop government departments using policy to promote a party in the days before an election. But media regulator Ofcom is obliged to oversee especially strict impartiality rules on what is broadcast in this period as well.

According to Ofcom sources, a debate without Cameron would not necessarily be out of the question as long as impartiality rules are observed. This could mean, for example, a presenter standing in for the PM and putting an alternative view based on the Tory manifesto. Unlikely – but it could happen.

What other formats could there be aside from propositions from major broadcasters?

A YouTube debate has been proposed and is still on the table as a possibility. It has the backing of the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian. Such a debate, broadcast online, would be free of the election window rules and is the most likely alternative. It would also mean there would be more freedom over which leaders took part. Ofcom would have no power to impose impartiality rules on these debates.

Will the debates happen?

Cameron insists that his latest offer is final – but as we have seen, a debate could still go ahead without him. It depends on the broadcasters and whether they believe a possible debate without the Prime Minister would be a televisual damp squib or not. And there’s also the possibility that Cameron may change his mind…

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It’s all politics, after all!