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The leaders’ TV debates: Corporeal looks at the rules

February 22nd, 2014

To start with the relatively easy bit: any debates taking place within the election period would be subject to OFCOM’s broadcasting code. Well mostly. In the interests of full accuracy this part of the code (primarily section 6) “does not apply to BBC services funded by the licence fee, which are regulated on these matters by the BBC trust”.

Since any debates are likely to be (as last time) a joint effort between the BBC and other TV stations I’d suggest that the most inclusive standards will used, but there is potential wiggle room there if the BBC trust’s view differs from OFCOM, although the broadcasters generally look for a consistent approach.

The second fairly easy bit. Both the BBC Trust and OFCOM specify that it is only an opportunity that must be offered, if a party declines their invitation it is perfectly fine to continue without them (or more dramatically, to empty chair them). This appears to be what will happen for the Clegg-Farage debate with both Miliband and Cameron declining to take part.

Now for the more complicated parts, namely the judgment of how much coverage the various parties get. Both the BBC trust and OFCOM use fairly broad categories for parties, roughly divided into major and minor.

OFCOM’s most recent publication on political parties is a consultation published in October 2013 (and due to report soon, although a major change seems unlikely) in regards to the May 2014 elections. (). It sets out the criteria for major parties (this list varies for different types of elections) as a mix of past electoral support (both in votes and seats won) over at least two electoral cycles and current polling support. The rough level of support sufficient to be described as ‘significant’ is about 10% (this is not explicitly stated but looking at how various numbers are classified it seems clear enough).

The BBC has published its draft guidance for that same set of elections listing their criteria, which is mainly similar but only looks back one electoral cycle rather than two. It also doesn’t break down the decisions as much as OFCOM, making it a little trickier to analyse them for other elections.

So to go a bit further and try and apply the judgments made about the parties in terms of the May 2014 elections to a potential General Election situation, firstly for OFCOM.

Since for both the European and English Local elections the Lib Dems will retain their major party status it seems clear that they will do likewise for the 2015 General Election. Even if their polling average does drop below 10% their past election results are likely to see them through for this election cycle at least.

For UKIP I suspect there will be outrage and complaints as they are left off the major party list. The key part of the consultation document for them is in the assessment relating to the English local elections. Despite a strong showing at the English local elections in 2013, because it has not been demonstrated over two electoral cycles they are not counted to be a major party for the local elections (they are for the European elections due to a stronger electoral record). Given their strongest General Election result was 3.1% in 2010, it seems unlikely they will gain major party status for a General Election in 2015.

As for the BBC guidance, for UK-wide broadcasts on the European elections it sets out the Conservatives, Labour, UKIP, and the Lib Dems as to receive similar levels of coverage. For UK-wide broadcasts on the English local elections that similar coverage list is Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems (UKIP and the Green party slated for what’s called a proportionate level of coverage).

Now for prediction time. I think the debates will definitely go ahead. The TV broadcasters enjoy the prominence and while the ratings will suffer from the lower novelty value second time around should still rate well (especially for a political show). Having finally got them after years of interest they’ll be keen to hang on to them.

That they have taken place once makes it that much harder for any major leader to bog them down in technical arguments that scuppered them prior to 2010. Both Miliband and Cameron seem bullish about them and I think broadcasters would genuinely threaten an empty chair and bet against a party leader excluding himself in what was such a major media event in the last election. At previous elections both of the two main party leaders had to want the debates to start them, now both leaders would have to oppose them to stop them.

As for the juicy part, who gets their hands on a golden ticket. In a slight nod to brevity I’m going to (mostly) leave out the permutations involving partial involvement which are possible but to numerous to go into here (enjoy the comments thread) and consider only a standard consistent format.

    My best guess would be a repeat of the last general election format, mainly because it is the status quo and hence the default option. As laid out above it also seems likely that OFCOM’s list of major parties, and the BBC’s list for similar coverage will be unchanged from the last General Election, making it probably the simplest option from that angle of things.

If there is a change I think it’d be more likely to include UKIP than omit the Lib Dems, it’s hard to see how the Lib Dems could be left out if the BBC does repeat its ‘similar coverage’ guidance (and I’d expect UKIP will be responding strongly to the next OFCOM consultation). There may be enough flexibility to have two debates with the Lib Dems and one without, or something of that nature.

The Telegraph apparently “understands” (to me this likely translates to have had a Conservative email saying so) that Nick Clegg being left out is a possibility and there is ‘no legal requirement’ for him to be invited (by this point in the article all I can say is to decide for yourself, or find an expert if there’s one about), but for myself I’d expect the TV debates to look a lot like last time around.

  • Important note, I’m not a broadcast lawyer or any other type of lawyer, so I write with the confidence only a lack of technical expertise can bestow
  • Corporeal