ITV has defended itself against Vote Leave accusations that it has “joined the official In campaign” in the EU referendum, after it announced plans for a programme pitching David Cameron against UKIP leader Nigel Farage.
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A Downing Street source indicated that the Prime Minister had ruled out “blue-on-blue” TV clashes with pro-Brexit Conservatives like Boris Johnson or Michael Gove, as he thought it important to “demonstrate the breadth of the debate rather than focus on a narrow issue in the Tory party”.
Vote Leave, which has been designated the official Out campaign, accused ITV of “stitching up” a deal with Number 10 to exclude its most prominent spokesmen in favour of Farage – who supports the Grassroots Out group – and said it was considering legal action over the 7 June programme’s line-up.
But the campaign group appeared to be backing away from a comment by a senior source, who said late on Wednesday that ITV’s decision would have “consequences” for its future, as “the people in No 10 won’t be there for long”.
The remark was denounced as “unacceptable, if not shocking” by former ITV chairman Lord Grade, who said broadcasters should stand up against “bullying tactics” by campaigners.
Meanwhile, ITV political editor Robert Peston dismissed claims of bias as a “mad slur” and insisted that the broadcaster was “wholly impartial in the EU referendum debate”.
The row erupted after ITV and Sky News announced the first plans for major set-piece TV events ahead of the June 23 referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.
Following the 7 June live programme featuring Cameron and Farage taking questions separately from a studio audience, ITV will screen a debate featuring senior figures from both sides on 9 June. Sky News will broadcast separate shows featuring Cameron and Gove on the 2nd and 3rd of June.
Shortly after the announcement of the broadcast plans, a senior Vote Leave source accused “the establishment” of “fixing the debates to shut out the official campaign”.
The source said: “ITV is led by people like Robert Peston who campaigned for Britain to join the euro. ITV has lied to us in private while secretly stitching up a deal with Cameron to stop Boris Johnson or Michael Gove debating the issues properly. ITV has effectively joined the official In campaign and there will be consequences for its future – the people in No10 won’t be there for long.”
That prompted an angry response from Peston, who tweeted: “I can hardly believe I need to say this: I never campaigned for the euro. ITV is wholly impartial in EU referendum debate.”
And he asked: “Apart from mad slur on me and ITV, did Gove and Boris approve threat at end that David Cameron will be out soon?”
Lord Grade said: “Today’s attempt by the referendum Leave campaign to threaten ITV with political repercussions over their TV debate plans is unacceptable, if not shocking.
“I know the public can rely on broadcasters to resist all bullying tactics in the run up to the referendum. If the Leave campaign has any complaint about a breach of statutory obligations to be impartial, they should take up their complaint with the regulator Ofcom.”
An ITV spokeswoman said: “ITV has not lied to anyone, nor has there been any kind of ‘stitch up’.
“Senior figures from the Vote Leave campaign have been invited to our debate on June 9 and have every opportunity to air their views and opinions on the issues in a two-hour long peak time programme on ITV.
“It was our editorial decision as to who would take part in the June 7 programme; the PM called the referendum, and the country wants to hear from him, and Nigel Farage has been a leading proponent of an exit from the EU for more than 20 years and his party received 3.8 million votes at the election. We invited them both and they accepted.
“We think our viewers will find both programmes useful in providing information ahead of polling day. Our programming will, as always, be fair, balanced and duly impartial.”
An official spokesman for Vote Leave later released a second statement, which dropped the suggestion that ITV would face “consequences” for its decisions.
The spokesman said: “The Government has set all the rules for the referendum to give itself every possible advantage. It has also demanded of the broadcasters that the Prime Minister should not have to debate representatives from the official Leave campaign.
“ITV has accepted the Prime Minister’s demands without even discussing it with the official campaign and has allowed the Prime Minister to dictate his own opponent. Since the campaign began, ITV has also given twice as much airtime to the In campaign than to the Leave campaign.
“We think that the Prime Minister ought to debate the representative of the official Leave campaign. In a serious democracy, the Government should not be allowed by a free media to pick its own opponents in the official debates on the most important political decision in decades.”
The spokesman said Vote Leave was “discussing legal possibilities” to ensure all sides of the debate were properly heard.
Asked about the Vote Leave statement that the people in No 10 would not be there much longer, as he arrived for a campaign visit in Dorset, Mr Johnson said: “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
Downing Street said Cameron was happy to make the case for Britain remaining in the EU “against anyone”.
A spokesman said: “He’s absolutely clear Britain is stronger, safer and better off in, and he’s happy to make that argument against anyone.
“Who he debates with is a matter for the broadcasters and if he agrees to do a debate then it will be on the basis of the proposal that the broadcasters have made. We are still in negotiations with broadcasters.”
Asked if the Prime Minister was willing to take part in a debate, the spokesman replied: “Yes, he is.”
“Who is proposed for the debates is totally a matter for the broadcasters,” he added.
The spokesman said No 10 would “consider whatever proposals are put to us”.