The major broadcasters are close to sealing a deal for David Cameron to appear at a single seven-way election debate, on April 2, in return for cancelling the remaining two contests.
The BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky News have previously warned that they will “empty chair” Mr Cameron if he fails to appear at three election debates scheduled across April, but negotiations between a select group of top television executives and the Conservatives for his attendance at a single debate are close to concluding.
Under the new plans, ITV would hold a single seven-way leaders’ debate, within the next couple of weeks, while the remaining election debates, which include a head-to-head between Mr Cameron and Ed Miliband, would be cancelled.
ITV had been scheduled to hold the first of three debates initially proposed by the broadcasters, at 8pm on April 2. But according to draft schedules circulated among them, the 8pm slot has been filled by Emmerdale, while at 8:30pm the channel is set to air Double Decker Driving School. Only the 9pm slot has yet to be filled.
Cancelling the remaining BBC and Channel 4/Sky debates will be seen as a massive climb-down by the broadcasters. In an attempt to help them save face, Mr Cameron is believed to have offered to take part in a number of replacement programmes, allowing the television companies to claim that he will still be forensically questioned.
These could include being quizzed by a selected audience of experts, in-depth interviews with news anchors, or town-hall style forums where he would face questions from members of the public. “The Tories have made it clear that we could get him involved in almost anything, as long as it does not have the word ‘debate’ in the title,” one source close to the negotiations said.
Negotiations between a wide group of broadcasting executives and politicians have dragged on for months, leading to an impasse. That negotiating forum has now been axed. Sue Inglish, the BBC’s head of political programmes, said last week that four senior news executives, one from each of the broadcasters, including James Harding, the BBC’s director of news, would now lead the talks.
The television companies had been bullish about the prospect of “empty-chairing” the Prime Minister, should he not attend the debates, but in recent days a number of grandees, including Tory peer Lord Grade, a former BBC chairman, have warned the BBC that doing so would risk politicising the corporation.
In a memo circulated to broadcasters earlier this week, Ofcom, the television regulator, warned channels that “great care needs to be taken when broadcasting election-related programming”, flagging up the requirement to show “due impartiality”.
The regulator added: “Ofcom will consider any breach arising from election-related programming to be potentially serious, and will consider taking regulatory action, as appropriate, in such cases, including considering the imposition of a statutory sanction.”