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July 2, 2019updated 30 Sep 2022 8:00am

Jeremy Hunt brands BBC an ‘absolute joke’ over plans to hold Tory leader debate after ballot opens

By James Walker

Conservative leadership candidate Jeremy Hunt has labelled the BBC an “absolute joke” over its plans to hold a debate between him and rival Boris Johnson after ballot papers have  been sent to Tory members.

The Foreign Secretary (pictured) revealed on social media this morning that BBC news director Fran Unsworth has invited him to appear on a Question Time special set to take place on 16 July at a time yet to be decided.

Tory members eligible to vote for the party’s next leader, who will replace Theresa May as UK Prime Minister, are expected to receive their ballot papers about ten days earlier, between 6 and 8 July.

Hunt said the BBC’s decision to host a debate just six days before voting closes on 22 July was “disrespectful to members and the public” and feared the vast majority will have already cast their vote.

But the public broadcaster said dates had to fit the broadcast around the two final candidates’ other commitments and argued it is important they both “speak to the whole of the UK”.

Hunt tweeted: “Just been invited by BBC’s Fran Unsworth to live TV debate against Boris on 16 July – after around 90 per cent of members have voted.

“Absolute joke to give the appearance of a debate whilst knowing it can have zero influence on campaign. Also v disrespectful to members and the public.”

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A BBC spokesperson told Press Gazette: “The BBC is keen to host a Question Time Special debate with both remaining candidates and has been trying to agree a date which works.

“Both candidates have already taken part in the first BBC debate, both have been interviewed by our political editor, and both have agreed in principle to participate in a Question Time special.”

The spokesperson added: “Clearly any date needs to fit in with the candidates’ existing commitments such as hustings and other TV appearances.

“July 16 is before the last Conservative hustings and the voting will still be open. But, crucially, our debate is about the next Prime Minister and we think it’s important both candidates speak to the whole of the UK, as well as the members of the Conservative Party.”

The broadcaster said it had also invited Johnson and Hunt to be interviewed by presenter Andrew Neil for a BBC One special.

Hunt and Johnson have already agreed to participate in a TV debate hosted by Julie Etchingham for ITV News on 9 July, which will also air after Conservative members receive their voting slips.

Hunt previously said he was “concerned” his rival has only so far committed to this programme as they should not “hide away” until ballots have already been sent back in.

Sky News was forced to cancel plans for a debate due to take place last week after Johnson refused to show up.

Writing to his rival last month, Hunt said the pair would “do this country and our democracy a deep disservice” were they to “hide away until members have submitted their postal ballots”.

The Foreign Secretary’s attack on the BBC comes two weeks after an imam whose had previously shared controversial comments on Israel was invited to ask questions on the broadcaster’s first Tory leadership debate.

Criticism of the booking prompted the BBC to say it would consider taking “additional steps” in the vetting of guests.

The programme, titled Our Next Prime Minister, was watched by more than 5m people and peaked at 5.7m viewers. It drew 31 complaints to broadcast regulator Ofcom, of which just a few related to the selection of guests.

Channel 4 News held the first debate with the Tory leadership contenders when there were still seven MPs in the race.

Johnson snubbed the programme but was represented by an empty lectern for the full 90 minutes.

In a second tweet today, Hunt said: “Other broadcasters had the courage to empty chair no shows. What happened to scrutiny without fear or favour at the BBC?”

The BBC spokesperson said: “We don’t think it’s reasonable to empty chair people who have already participated in interviews and debates and have agreed to take part again.”

Picture: Reuters/Toby Melville

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