Open letter to the BBC, ITV and Sky on the proposed leaders’ debates

Below is the text of a letter I’ll be sending to the BBC, ITV, Sky, and possibly Ofcom, the Electoral Commission, the SNP and Plaid Cymru over the next few days!

Dear Sirs,

I note with some dismay the plans to hold three debates between the leaders of the three largest UK political parties at the forthcoming general election: one each on the BBC, ITV and Sky. My concern is not about the fact that this format could be seen as unduly favouring the main parties, or that it changes the nature of the contest into a battle between presidential-type candidates for the top job. What I am mainly disturbed about is the way these debates are in danger of seriously misrepresenting the key issues at the election and, more particularly, failing to make clear who those issues affect.

These clashes are being billed as ‘UK’ debates: the UK party leaders discussing issues affecting the whole of the UK, for which the new UK government and parliament will be responsible. Reflecting the debates’ supposedly UK-wide character, the participation of the leaders of the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru has been excluded; and separate debates have been proposed to focus on the key election issues for each of the devolved nations.

However, this way of dividing up the debate is based on a distortion of the facts. The truth of the matter is that it is not Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that should have their own separate debates but England. This is because it is only for England (and occasionally Wales, too) that many of the key election issues are of any relevance at all: education, health, crime and justice (including Wales), planning, housing, the environment and rural affairs, communities and local government, culture and sport, much of transport policy, etc.

Do the BBC, ITV and Sky need reminding that, because of devolution, the UK government’s responsibilities in these areas are limited to England? Given this fact, any debates on these topics should be billed as England-specific and preferably be broadcast only in England. Of what relevance to people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would a debate on NHS funding and reform be when the NHS in question is the English NHS? The same applies to the other policy areas mentioned above.

Admittedly, the votes of people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will still have a material effect on the eventual government’s policies for health, education and communities in England, as those votes will determine the colour of the UK government. But that is not what the election should be about in those countries: the voting choices of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish people should be determined by what the prospective MPs for those countries are proposing to do for them, not what the UK party leaders are proposing to do for England. If, however, debates purporting to be about UK matters (which are in reality English matters) are broadcast in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – and if the party leaders are allowed to get away with falsely presenting those issues as relating to the whole of the UK – then the broadcasters would be guilty of a serious act of misrepresentation that is almost tantamount to electoral fraud and gerrymandering:

  • presenting a false prospectus to the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland
  • encouraging them to waste their votes on policies that do not affect them
  • and allowing policies affecting English people only to be in part decided upon by voters living outside England.

The proposal to hold separate debates in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland seems in part to be an implicit recognition of the fact that the ‘UK’ debates are in many respects England-only debates. But will they be presented explicitly as such? All the signs are that the debates will indiscriminately mix up genuinely UK-wide matters (reserved responsibilities of the UK government, such as defence, foreign affairs and macro-economics) and English matters (i.e. all those policy areas for which responsibility in the other countries of the UK has been transferred to the devolved administrations). In the news report on the BBC website about the agreement to hold the debates, it was stated that: “The format will be the same for each [debate], although about half of each debate will be themed”. Does this mean that about half of each debate will be devoted to specific topics for which it will be made clear which countries they affect?

This is a really critical question. Given the importance that is being attached to these debates as events that could play a substantial part in deciding the outcome of the election, if a themed debate on health or education is not clearly indicated as relating to England only, then the broadcaster in question will be guilty of grossly misleading the electorate: the election result could end up being shaped by the misapprehension of many Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish voters that the parties’ policies on those issues actually affect them – which they don’t, at least not in any direct way as would be implied by the misrepresentation. If the themed parts of the debates are accurately characterised in respect of the countries affected by the topics discussed, then there is no reason why these debates should not be broadcast across the UK, even though it would have to be explained that large parts of them were largely irrelevant to viewers outside England.

Instead of this, however, one has the distinct impression that the exclusion of the leaders of the SNP and Plaid Cymru is designed to avoid having to make clear to viewers that large parts of the debates relate to England only. This is because if Alex Salmond and Ieuan Wyn Jones took part, they would doubtless refuse to discuss many of the key, England-specific, issues on the basis of the democratic principle that they are elected by the people of Scotland and Wales to make decisions that affect them, not decisions affecting only the people of England. So, rather than allowing the nationalists to shatter the other parties’ deceit that the UK election is about only UK-wide matters, it is deemed more appropriate to suppress the national consciousness of the English people by removing the nationalists from the picture altogether. The ‘nation-specific’ perspectives of Scotland and Wales can then be sidelined in separate broadcasts; whereas, on the contrary, those perspectives in fact provide an absolutely vital input to the UK debates – the true perception that many ‘UK’ issues are also in fact nation-specific: to England, that is.

In reality, the way these debates ought to be structured to take account of the facts of government post-devolution is diametrically opposed to the structure that has been proposed: instead of ‘UK’ debates that are in reality part-UK and part-English being broadcast to the whole of the UK but excluding the SNP and Plaid Cymru, there should be, on the one hand, genuine UK debates (dealing with reserved matters) in which the leaders of the SNP and Plaid should naturally participate and, on the other hand, England-specific debates (broadcast in England only) from which the leaders of the nationalist parties could justifiably be absent, as they’d have nothing to contribute.

If the UK debates genuinely dealt with UK-wide matters only and were broadcast across the UK, then it would be entirely inappropriate to exclude the leaders of governing parties in Scotland and Wales. The Scottish and Welsh perspectives should surely be represented if the UK is a genuine union of democratically, if not demographically, equal nations. The Scottish and Welsh point of view on reserved matters would be useful to voters in England not just because of the corrective it would supply to the established parties’ misrepresentation of English matters as UK-wide matters but because it would make possible a more honest and comprehensive discussion about the facts of public expenditure across the UK, including the Barnett differentials, and the different priorities for spending and cuts in the different countries of the UK.

For example, in the article referred to above, Gordon Brown is quoted as saying, in one breath, that the debates will provide an opportunity to: “discuss the big choices the country [the UK and England] faces. Choices like whether we lock in the recovery or whether we choke it off [UK-wide]; whether we protect the NHS [in England], schools [in England] and police [in England and Wales] or whether we put them at risk to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy few [across the UK]”. The participation of the nationalists would prevent Gordon Brown and the other leaders from getting away with what is a distortion of the facts here: some areas of public expenditure, including England-specific items like the NHS, may be safeguarded; but this will be in the context of overall cuts, which will also result in cuts to the Scottish and Welsh block grants. So the party leaders will try to reassure voters that the NHS is safe in their hands; but spending in Scotland and Wales – including potentially on the NHS in those countries – will have to be reduced.

It is vital that voters in Scotland and Wales are made aware of these facts. And it is equally crucial that voters in England understand that the parties are talking only about England when they refer to spending in devolved areas of government; and that policies and public spending outside of England are subject to different political priorities and fiscal imperatives. Being made aware of the different policies on and funding of the NHS or education in Scotland and Wales would enable English voters to make a more informed choice about health and education in England. There certainly might be more public demand for a needs-based funding system to replace the Barnett Formula, so that the impact of overall UK spending cuts on the poorer parts of England could be mitigated, and the favouritism of the present system towards Scotland could be balanced out. Now that would be a proper UK-wide debate, in which the impact of the UK government’s fiscal and spending policies on each of the countries of the UK could be clearly set out and argued over.

In addition, it is quite possible that the SNP and Plaid Cymru could hold the balance of power in the not unlikely event of a hung parliament after the election. Therefore, it is vitally important to English and non-English voters alike that the leaders of those parties should be interrogated about their willingness to support a minority Tory or Labour government. What concessions for their own countries and parties would they demand as a price of their co-operation? And, more crucially, would the SNP or Plaid support the party of government on English bills as well as UK-wide ones? But of course, this is another dimension the main parties wish to keep under wraps: the fact that they may be reliant on the support of Scottish and Welsh MPs (their own as well as those of the nationalist parties) to pass legislation affecting only or mainly England. Just as the same parties need the support of Scottish and Welsh voters to have a chance of implementing their policies for England only as the party of UK government.

And this is the fundamental injustice that the so-called UK leaders’ debates are in danger of perpetuating: that the governance of England is decided on by all the people of the UK, even those not living in England. Organising and presenting so-called UK debates that fail to differentiate between matters affecting the whole of the UK and those relating to England only is tantamount to conspiring to defraud the English public of a fair and free election: one in which the facts are offered to them without bias or distortion; and in which the choices they, and only they, make determine the government policies that are applied to them alone.

A failure of this magnitude on the part of the broadcasters would, in short, be an infringement of English people’s human rights (including the right to free and fair elections), and a transgression against the Broadcasting Code: the duty to ensure impartial and accurate presentation of the news.

Will the BBC, ITV and Sky carry out their duty to make clear to the different UK nations which of the parties’ policies apply to them and which do not? Or will they conspire with the parties to falsify the true terms of the debate?

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2 Responses

  1. […] Posted on 7 January 2010 by David I’ve received the following reply from Sky to my open letter regarding the proposed party leaders’ debates at the […]

  2. […] from the BBC Complaints department to an email I sent them just after Christmas referring to my open letter to the broadcasters about the proposed (English) party leaders’ debates at the forthcoming election. One day […]

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