Tuesday 20 April 2010

Let everyone watch the debate! 10 reasons to #showitlivebbc

The second leadership debate of the General Election is this Thursday night at 8pm to 9.30pm, hosted by Sky News.

It should be shown live on analogue television: we should push the BBC, as well as Channel 4 and/or ITV to explain why they have chosen not to do so, and appeal to them to uphold their role as public service broadcasters by one of them covering it live so everybody has access to watching the debate live. I am a major fan, supporter and champion of the BBC, but they give little impression of having thought this issue through at all.

If you agree, please tweet using the #showitlivebbc hashtag, which has just been adopted for this purpose.

You can contact the BBC on 03700 100 222 to make a complaint or make your view known via www.bbc.co.uk/complaints. My own experience of trying to do that just now is below, but perhaps they will develop a more accurate response tomorrow.

Or contact the BBC Trust at trust.enquiries@bbc.co.uk if you are

1. If increasing the audience for a foreign affairs debate between party leaders by probably 3 million or more during a General Election campaign isn't public service broadcasting, what on earth is?

2. Over 10% of households will not have access to live TV transmission on Thursday. Many of the same people will not have internet access. The over 65s are likely to be disproportionately affected. Radio 4 coverage is great, but the TV coverage is of important democratic impact.

3. Many households with Freeview will not be familiar with Sky News, the BBC News Channel and BBC Parliament, which are a long way up the Electronic Programme Guide. This will limit audiences unnecessarily to keen news watchers, when an analogue broadcast would surely draw in many hundreds of thousands more general viewers too.

4. How many other things do Unite's Charlie Whelan and Spectator editor Fraser Nelson agree on? Whelan says he wants to support a campaign. Nelson that it is crazy not to: "these debates should not be "owned" by any network".

Just about everybody who cares about our democracy will agree. Those calling for a campaign on the issue today included top centre-right blogger Iain Dale, ex-Observer political editor Gaby Hinsliff, Sunday Telegraph political editor Patrick Hennessy and dozens of others interested and engaged in politics.

It seems that the BBC really does not have any convincing argument to offer opinion formers, the media and political audiences about why they couldn't be bothered, so is unnecessarily undermining its core contribution to our political democracy. (Indeed, their official public information line is tonight telling inquirers that they do not have the rights, which is simply wrong).

5. Sky have made the debate coverage available to any other broadcaster for live transmission - so there is no bar to live coverage, which will already be going out on BBC Parliament and BBC News. In the US there is little sense of "ownership" of debates. Why have that here? (It would be absurd and a disservice to viewers and citizens if the BBC's motivation is only that the third, BBC-hosted debate should be the first one ever to be shown live on the BBC).

6. Is Watchdog sacrosanct? The idea that the debate could not be accomodated in the BBC1 or BBC2 schedule will strike most people as absurd. On BBC1, this would simply involve rescheduling one episode of Watchdog 8pm-9pm and one episode of Have I Got News For You which is already scheduled to be shown again at the weekend. (Showing the debate "as live" at 11.30pm on BBC2 after Newsnight makes little sense: this will be after the news clips, polling and discussion of the debate has taken place).

7. Having argued that the debates are a unique and important addition to our democracy, shouldn't the TV channels value them? The broadcasters will certainly not want the politicians to wriggle out of debates in future elections - so why should the BBC look as it it is already pretty bored after just one debate.

8. Having made innumerable programmes debating what to do about political apathy, why on earth not show a live debate at a moment when interest and discussion in politics is at its highest?

9. Couldn't neglecting to show a major live news event to which they have access significantly undermine the broadcasters' case for major sporting events and other national events to have protected status?

10. There should be strong support from every part of the political and media spectrum, including the leaders' themselves.

Gordon Brown will want to save the debate which will give him the chance to explain how he saved the world.

Who could, right now, refuse whatever Nick Clegg wants?

And David Cameron's concern for the great excluded should allow him to say "I still care about analogue viewers in a digital world".

I have just contacted the BBC complaints line - and was insistently told that the BBC has no right to show the debate on analogue television.

"The broadcasters drew lots for the debates and divided it out: this is the Sky debate and they have the rights. The BBC will provide coverage of this as it is an important news event: that will include coverage on BBC Radio 4 and the BBC News Channel".

The respondent was insistent that the BBC could not choose to show the debate on analogue television. I explained this was wrong, that the rights were available to do that just as easily as showing it on BBC Parliament or the news channel. I did get her to read Adam Boulton's blog, saying the opposite, but was told this was wrong.

On explaining that the concern was about audience size and the ability of everybody to see the debate, I was told "this is a pointless conversation" and that there were no other routes to get any statement about the decision. I would have thought it is in fact possible to appeal to the BBC Trust to review the decision, though that information was not offered to me when I tried to ask about that.

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