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November 8, 2019updated 30 Sep 2022 8:33am

Lib Dems threaten legal action after BBC snubs leader Jo Swinson in planned TV head-to-head

By Charlotte Tobitt

The Liberal Democrats have threatened to take legal action against the BBC over its decision to exclude leader Jo Swinson from a head-to-head TV debate hosted by Nick Robinson.

Conservative leader Boris Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will take part in the so-called Prime Ministerial Debate, which is set to air six days before voters hit the polls in a snap general election next month, the BBC announced today.

The Lib Dems, who are campaigning to stop Brexit, have already threatened legal action against ITV News over its planned head-to-head with the Tory and Labour leaders that also left Swinson out.

Swinson said in a statement her party would “pursue all options, including legal action, to ensure that our voice is heard in televised leaders’ debates”.

“The BBC are now complicit in another establishment stitch up to shut down debate on the most important issue for generations: Brexit,” Swinson said.

“Millions of people voted to Remain in 2016. After three years of chaos, it is shocking that the Liberal Democrats – the strongest party of Remain – are being denied the opportunity to challenge Johnson and Corbyn on Brexit.”

Lib Dem MP Chuka Umunna said the BBC’s plans were “wrong” and claimed the head-to-head debate would breach Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code by leaving his party out.

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Umunna, who left the Labour party in February, tweeted: “We are in an era of multiparty politics – the era of two-party politics is well and truly over. And yet our main broadcasters insist on presenting the old, anachronistic, two-party version to the public.

“It is the establishment reinforcing the establishment and must be called out.”

However the Lib Dems have been invited to take part in a separate BBC TV debate involving all seven major political parties, also hosted by Today presenter Robinson, and a Question Time special.

The seven-way debate will take place in Cardiff on 29 November, with the leaders’ head-to-head to air live from Southampton a week later on 6 December.

BBC head of newsgathering Jonathan Munro has said both the Lib Dems and the Scottish National Party “claim to be the third party of British politics” in votes and Commons seats respectively.

He wrote in a blog post: “Which of these two claims is more credible? Our view is neither – they are both valid. Equal but different claims for third place, so we respect both.

“That means the SNP and Liberal Democrat leaders will get significant coverage, roughly equivalent to each other, but not quite as much as the potential Prime Ministers. That explains why we’ve asked all four of these leaders to take part in the unprecedented Question Time special.”

ITV News announced last week it would stage a live head-to-head debate between Johnson and Corbyn on Tuesday 19 November, moderated by Julie Etchingham, plus its own seven-way debate.

But Lib Dem president Baroness Brinton wrote to ITV chief executive Carolyn McCall to argue Swinson should be included in the head-to-head to ensure a Remain-backing voice is heard.

ITV said in response that it “intends to offer viewers comprehensive and fairly balanced general election coverage” including a “wide range of programming”.

In a statement about the BBC’s coverage, Robinson said: “I hope and believe The BBC Prime Ministerial Debate and The BBC Election Debate will illuminate the choice we all face between competing parties, leaders, policies and visions for the country.

“They are just one of many ways the BBC aims to do that. I hope they’ll reach people who don’t normally switch on for politics on TV.

“I covered my first election in 1987 and it’s an absolute thrill to have played a part over the years as a researcher, producer, political editor and now as debate host.”

Fiona Bruce will host a Question Time leaders’ special in which Johnson, Corbyn, Swinson and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon will take questions from the audience for 30 minutes each across two hours.

It will be broadcast from Sheffield on BBC One and BBC Five Live on Friday 22 November.

Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage and one of the Green Party’s two co-leaders, Sian Berry or Jonathan Bartley, will appear on further special programmes.

Radio 5 Live and Newsnight presenter Emma Barnett will host a 90-minute Question Time on prime-time BBC One on 9 December aimed at younger audiences, with under-30s selected to ask questions of senior figures from the main parties.

Barnett said: “Young voters and their needs should not be forgotten about by the party leaders this election.

“From the cost of living, to job opportunities, education, housing, Brexit and beyond – this special programme will seek answers to these burning questions from an important but often overlooked perspective.”

The BBC also announced plans for debates with political leaders for its channels in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Earlier this week Sky News announced plans for a new Saturday morning politics show in addition to Ridge on Sunday for the election campaign period.

Picture: Reuters/Toby Melville

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