I wrote to Sir Michael Lyons at the BBC Trust on 22 December, asking that UKIP should be allowed to participate in the televised debates between party leaders. Sir Michael wrote explaining that you rather than the Trust were the appropriate point of contact, and you wrote to me on 15 January 2010, conveying to me your decision and that of the BBC to reject my request on the following grounds:
“The basis on which judgements are made about relative levels of coverage rests on past and current electoral support. For the election to the House of Commons in 2010, the starting point is the last General Election, in 2005. Similarly, the starting point for coverage of the 2009 European election was the previous European election of 2004. This means that UKIP – on the basis of its strong performance in 2004 – was given the same level of coverage in the 2009 election as the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties. In 2005, however, at the last General Election (notwithstanding its performance at the European election less than a year before), UKIP attracted just over 2% of the vote and won no representation at Westminster.
“It is, therefore, appropriate and consistent for the BBC – and other broadcasters – to offer the opportunity to take part in the Prime Ministerial debates only to those parties which have substantial electoral support in the context of Westminster. There will be additional opportunities across the BBC for other parties to receive appropriate coverage responding to the Prime Ministerial debate.”
We have been given no adequate opportunity to respond to the first two debates. What arrangements is the BBC making to address this? How can the coverage be “appropriate” if we cannot reach the leaders’ audience?
The first two of the party leaders’ debates have been held and, as I feared, have given spectacular prominence to the three parties whom you, ITV and Sky TV allowed to take part. The unfairness in our being excluded from the party leaders’ debates is now all too evident.
Most recently, I wrote to you on 23 April, sending you my recent correspondence with Sky TV, and inviting you to rectify the lack of impartiality which broadcasters have demonstrated in refusing to allow UKIP to participate in the televised leaders’ debates. I have not had a reply to my letter to you. The final leaders’ debate is in just two days’ time. The matter is now urgent, and I have done my best to pursue it timeously.
Since time is now short, I have taken advice, in the light of which I should like to draw your attention to the following provisions in the BBC’s own election guidelines:
“3. Due Impartiality in coverage of parties and issues
“3.1 Coverage of the Parties
“To achieve due impartiality, each bulletin, programme or programme strand, as well as online and interactive services, for each election, must ensure that the parties are covered proportionately over an appropriate period, normally across a week. This means taking into account levels of past and current electoral support.
“Due impartiality must be achieved within these categories:
“interviews/discussions of up to 10 minutes;
“Previous electoral support in equivalent elections is the starting-point for making judgments about the proportionate level of coverage between parties.
“However, other factors can be taken into account where appropriate, including evidence of variation in levels of support in more recent elections, changed political circumstances (e.g. new parties or party splits) as well as other evidence of current support. The number of candidates a party is standing may also be a factor.” [my emphasis]
These election guidelines – as you may know – were approved by Jenny Watson, the chairman of the Electoral Commission, in a letter dated 11 January 2010 to Ric Bailey, the BBC’s Chief Adviser for Politics (Editorial Policy), as follows:
“In addition we are satisfied with the draft Election Guidelines, and the approach taken regarding the participation of candidates in constituency items during the election period.”
In the last “equivalent” election, the 2005 General Election, UKIP won 2.2% of the national vote, as you have pointed out. However, in the more recent European Election of last year, UKIP came second in the UK, with 16.5% of the national vote, compared with 15.7% for Labour and 13.7% for the Liberal Democrats. This surely constitutes compelling “evidence of variation in levels of support in more recent elections”. In the circumstances, I should have expected your correspondence to have referred to this provision within your election guidelines. You have allowed Labour and the Liberal Democrats to participate in the leaders’ debates, though they received smaller shares of the vote than UKIP in the most recent test of national opinion, which was the European Election of last year. Yet you have denied UKIP the chance to participate.
Furthermore, UKIP – as of today – is fielding 560 candidates, a number not far short of those fielded by the three parties whom you are allowing to participate in the leaders’ debate. As your own guidelines say, “The number of candidates a party is standing may also be a factor.” I should have expected your correspondence to have referred to this provision of your electoral guidelines too. Certainly, UKIP – in the number of candidates we are fielding in this General Election – is close to parity with those parties whom you are allowing to participate.
Both these circumstances are directly relevant to any decision whether to allow UKIP to participate in the leaders’ debates. Yet you do not seem to have taken account of them in your decision as conveyed to me, or in any of our subsequent discussions.
There is also the question of the BBC’s obligations under its charter, which has been the subject of correspondence between us on many previous occasions. In the leaders’ debate so far, the question of our EU membership, its lack of democratic accountability and its heavy financial and constitutional cost has not been debated at all. Mr. Brown has been allowed to get away with saying, unchallenged, that three million jobs depend on our membership of the European Union. Nor has there been any discussion of our proposal to introduce binding initiative referenda at local as well as national level, which is the only effective way to allow us, the people, to rule once more, as well as to address the issue of corruption in Parliament, to say nothing of the increasing gulf between government and the governed.
It is reasonable and proportionate, having regard to the election guidelines as cited above, and having regard to the absence of UKIP from the first two leaders’ debates, that UKIP should be allowed to participate fairly and fully in the final leaders’ debate.
Since you did not adopt my original suggestion that UKIP should at least be allowed to participate in some part of each debate, and since all other avenues available to me have been exhausted, and since UKIP has been denied the opportunity to participate at all in either of the first two debates, and since time is running out, I must now ask you to reconsider your refusal to allow UKIP to participate in the third and final leaders’ debate, to be aired on Thursday evening, 29 April 2010.
Should you and the BBC fail to accede to this request by noon tomorrow, Wednesday, 28 April, 2010, please take this letter as notice, in terms of the pre-action protocol in judicial review proceedings under the Civil Procedure Rules, that the United Kingdom Independence Party, of PO Box 480, Newton Abbot, Devon, TQ12 9BG, and I as UKIP’s leader, as claimants, will apply to the Administrative Court at or as soon as practicable after 2 pm tomorrow afternoon for judicial review of your decision and that of the BBC, as defendants, expressed in your letter to me of 15 January 2010, to refuse to allow UKIP to participate in the third and final leaders’ debate, and for an injunction requiring you and the BBC to permit me, as UKIP’s leader, to participate in that debate on an equal footing with all others whom you and the BBC shall have permitted to participate.
I regret that the notice is very short, but time is pressing and I have not had an answer to my letter to you of 23 April.
Details of our legal advisers will be notified to you in due course.
Lord Pearson of Rannoch
I don't hold out much hope that the BBC will cave in on this, and to my mind, nor should they. I don't believe Alex Salmond should have a place in this debate and nor do I believe UKIP should either. They are not standing in every seat (unlike the three main parties) - in fact there are 90 seats without a UKIP candidate. At the last Westminster election they scored only 2% and no one could seriously suggest that Lord Pearson is a candidate for Prime Minister - and these are, after all, called the Prime Ministerial Debates. He's also not standing for election himself, unlike the leaders of the three main parties. And if you include UKIP, why not the BNP and the Greens too? Or indeed others?
To my mind the BBC has bent over backwards in its news bulletins and other political programmes to include minority parties - far more than in any previous election.
I just do not believe that UKIP deserves a fourth podium on Thursday, and I suspect the courts will agree.