BBC unmoved in TV election debates row

DUP leader Peter Robinson and deputy leader Nigel Dodds emerge from a meeting with BBC head of news James Harding on Thursday
DUP leader Peter Robinson and deputy leader Nigel Dodds emerge from a meeting with BBC head of news James Harding on Thursday

The BBC has offered nothing new to break the deadlock with the DUP over its exclusion from a pre-election televised debate, the party has claimed.

The fourth-largest political grouping in the Commons with eight seats is angry that the proposed format of the as yet-unconfirmed televised showdowns envisages the participation of Plaid Cymru and the SNP.

DUP leader Peter Robinson has already threatened to launch judicial review proceedings against the broadcaster if it does not change its stance. He met senior BBC managers in Belfast on Thursday.

Mr Robinson said: “We did not hear anything from the BBC that was new. There was nothing that would have strengthened the threadbare argument they have advanced thus far.

“I hope that we have given them further cause to reconsider the poor decision that has been taken.”

If the debates proceed as planned, Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband will be pitched in a head-to-head showdown on Sky and Channel 4 exactly a week before the May 7 general election.

ITV won the right to stage the first debate, scheduled for April 2, which will put Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband against Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg, Ukip’s Nigel Farage, the Greens’ Natalie Bennett, the Scottish National Party’s Nicola Sturgeon and Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru.

The same line-up of seven leaders has been invited to take part in the second debate, a fortnight later on April 16, which will be hosted by the BBC.

Mr Cameron has yet to confirm whether he will take part in any or all of the debates, having expressed concern at the exclusion of the DUP from the proposed format.

The TV companies have indicated their determination to go ahead with the broadcasts in the absence of any leader not willing to take part.

The BBC said in Northern Ireland, the corporation will host a separate primetime TV debate to ensure fair and impartial treatment of all the main Northern Ireland parties: the DUP, Sinn Fein, the SDLP, the UUP and the Alliance.

James Harding, BBC director of news, went to Belfast on behalf of the director-general to hear directly from Mr Robinson about his party’s concerns.

A BBC statement said: “The position of the broadcasters on the TV debates remains unchanged.”

Mr Harding added: “This meeting provided an important and useful opportunity for us to hear about the DUP’s concerns. The BBC is required to cover the upcoming election impartially and independent of any political pressure.

“Our job is to serve the public, ensuring that all voters get full and fair coverage of the choice at the general election.”

The DUP has also raised its concerns with the BBC Trust and, separately, instructed lawyers to prepare to take legal action against the BBC.