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Paddy Ashdown accuses BBC of misrepresenting Lib Dems by reporting Nick Clegg opted out of TV debate

By PA Media Lawyer

Liberal Democrat election campaign chief Paddy Ashdown has written to the BBC to complain it misrepresented the party's position by reporting that Nick Clegg opted out of last week's TV debate. (Picture: Ashown and Clegg, Reuters)

The former party leader also accused broadcasters of backtracking on a deal about the final round of TV interviews with party leaders.

He said it was agreed that only Clegg, David Cameron and Ed Miliband would appear in a final set, but since then UKIP's Nigel Farage, Plaid Cymru's Leanne Wood and Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP had been offered slots.

In a letter to the BBC's director general Tony Hall, Ashdown said he would make a formal complaint to the BBC Trust unless the corporation immediately corrected the suggestion the Liberal Democrats chose not to take part in last Thursday's debate.

He wrote: "Nick Clegg did not choose to 'sit this out'; he was excluded from the debate by the BBC.

"At no point were the Liberal Democrats offered a choice that involved allowing Nick Clegg to take part. Your executives will confirm that we consistently told the BBC that he wished to be included in the debate.

"You will understand how damaging it is to suggest that Nick Clegg voluntarily chose not to participate when that is not the case and further to equate our position with that of David Cameron, who did refuse to participate and who has consistently sought to avoid debating other leaders."

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It is understood Clegg did not press the issue of his participation at the Challengers' Debate, attended by the five opposition parties, due to an assurance that only he, the Prime Minister and the Labour leader would appear in a final set of successive interviews each lasting half an hour as part of a single 90-minute programme.

Ashdown wrote: "We are currently in discussions with BBC executives to understand why this has happened and how the BBC will guarantee that any new arrangements ensure that the Liberal Democrats are not further disadvantaged compared to those parties that were not excluded from the debate on April 16th.

"I hope you will ensure that this happens.

"In view of the seriousness of the misrepresentation of our position on the BBC News at Ten and elsewhere, I would be grateful for rapid confirmation that an apology and clarification will be forthcoming.

"In the absence of such confirmation, we will need to consider a formal complaint to the BBC Trust."

A BBC spokeswoman said last night: "We have received the letter today and will respond in due course."

On Friday, a BBC spokesperson said that the “agreed” debate formats had “involved all sides […] making a number of compromises”.

They said: “Over many months the broadcasters, jointly, have worked hard to ensure that their audiences were offered the best possible combination of programmes to help them engage with the election, to inform them about the issues and to scrutinise the politicians.

“The programmes which have been agreed – including the BBC debate on the 16th –  involved all sides, broadcasters and parties, making a number of compromises, allowing the different elements to go ahead.

“For each of the broadcasters, ensuring due impartiality is not only a priority, but an obligation and the BBC is satisfied that the election programmes it is offering on each of its services fulfils that obligation and that all the relevant parties will have the opportunity to put their case – and to be appropriately scrutinised.”

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