No easy choices in the politics of election broadcasting

I admit I’m looking forward with uncomplicated pleasure to the “historic” UK leaders’ debates which will shape and dominate the election campaign. Here, the BBC’s Ric Bailey only reveals the tip of an iceberg of tortuous negotiations. All three debates will be shown on all three bidding channels. I only hope the live audiences used to Question Time defy the politicians’ gagging rules and rough them up a bit. Super-controlled US presidential debates would send you to sleep and are more about avoiding banana skins than scoring points. The promised local debates are something to look forward too. Will they take place in an atmosphere of calm or crisis? Unfortunately they’re hardly likely to contribute much to working together but at least we can assume sitting together won’t be the problem. Jim Allister vs Paisley Junior(?) will be a huge constituency story – but how will the TUV leader figure in debates? At the top table or in a round-up of minor parties with Alliance and the Greens? The rules and procedures are tough on new parties. Normally a party’s role in election broadcasting depends on a mixture of its past performance (fifth place with 13.7% in the Europe elections but no seats won), and the number of candidates standing. I guess we can rely on Jim Allister QC to make the loudest possible case for equal treatment, as in his recent Question Time appearance when the panel was expanded by one to accommodate him, as the representative of the only formally anti-Agreement party.I can only presume planning is well advanced although I haven’t heard a word. Five main debates with five parties taking part, plus one interview programme for minor parties would follow the UK national principle but seems too many. Two debates would suffice I suspect. After all there’s still only one burning topic. Belfast-based broadcasters have at least been spared arguments from local parties for a place in UK-wide debate. This is because national UK parties aren’t remotely serious rivals to local parties (nor are Dublin-based parties for that matter). I doubt whether the Ucunf ticket will seriously alter this. But the GB nationalist parties think differently.

The SNP and Plaid Cymru are crying foul at being denied a place in the main debates. Their argument is that leaving them out unfairly discriminates in favour of their local main rivals, Labour the Lib Dems and the Conservatives, who now get two bites at the cherry with national and local debates. The only answer to that is that on the national topics chosen – home affairs (mainly but not exclusively English), foreign affairs and the economy – it’s the three main parties who mainly decide.(Oh really, do the Lib Dems decide on anything? ) Yes I agree, no argument is perfect. But then again, it would be equally unfair and a pain for the great majority of (English ) viewers, if the SNP and Plaid muscled in on the national debates on the basis of their tiny UK wide support. In the end, you know it makes sense to leave them to the their home bases.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London