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November 22, 2019updated 30 Sep 2022 8:38am

Channel 4 News will empty chair Boris Johnson if he refuses leaders’ climate debate

By Freddy Mayhew

Boris Johnson will be empty chaired by Channel 4 News if he declines an invitation to debate the climate crisis with other party leaders in a UK TV first ahead of next month’s general election.

It comes after the Prime Minister turned down a televised leaders’ debate on Channel 4 planned for this Sunday despite “weeks of negotiations”, resulting in the programme being cancelled.

Now Johnson has been invited to attend Emergency on Planet Earth: The Debate, which will air at 7pm on a date to be confirmed although it will be a weekday within the next two weeks before voters go to the polls on 12 December.

All of the main party leaders have already agreed to take part except Johnson and Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage.

Channel 4 News editor Ben De Pear confirmed Johnson would be represented by an empty podium if he failed to show.

“We would really hope we wouldn’t have to do that on an issue of this gravity,” De Pear told Press Gazette.

“The most recent example of climate change in this country is Fishlake [South Yorkshire] and the 800 houses that were flooded out there.

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“We saw the Prime Minister go up there and people asked him: ‘Where have you been Boris? Why are you here so late?’

“We would hope we wouldn’t have to say: ‘Where are you Prime Minister, why haven’t you come on [the climate debate] at all?’”

De Pear said Johnson “always says yes when we ask him” to attend debates, but added: “It’s whether it actually happens.”

The Tory leader cancelled a planned interview with the broadcaster at the G7 summit in August and turned down an interview during the party’s conference in October, telling a reporter who asked why that it was “above my pay grade”.

However Johnson did give an interview to Channel 4 News political editor Garry Gibbon while he was in New York for the United Nations General Assembly in September.

During this election campaign Johnson has so far taken part in a head-to-head with Jeremy Corbyn on ITV and will appear on a BBC Question Time special with other party leaders tonight.

De Pear said he didn’t know why Johnson refused to appear on Channel 4 News, adding: “I think they choose the interviews they want.

“It’s certainly not because of our audience, because it’s the healthiest it has been since 2011.”

He said the news bulletins are regularly drawing in 800,000 to 1m viewers every evening and that Channel 4 News is the “most-watched news programme” on social media platforms.

“It would be a shame if the Prime Minister didn’t want to appeal to these people, most of whom are voters, especially on a subject they are passionately interested in,” he added.

The Tories this week turned away the Daily Mirror from Johnson’s campaign battle bus, reporting that the party had blamed its “critical coverage of the Prime Minister” on flooding and the NHS.

Channel 4 News has also covered flooding in the north.

“Any closing down of access for professional, bona fide journalists in this country is detrimental to democracy,” De Pear told Press Gazette.

He said interviews with politicians had been cut shorter and shorter over the years since Margaret Thatcher was in office.

“I honestly believe, having followed Boris’ career as a journalist over many years, he relishes interviews but for whatever reason he is containing this to certain outlets.

“We don’t know if he is making that decision or if somebody else is.”

The climate debate will see party leaders answer questions on the climate crisis, environment and biodiversity, from both experts and members of the public.

Picture: Dan Kitwood/Pool/Reuters

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