On Monday of this week, I finally received a reply from the BBC Complaints department to an email I sent them just after Christmas referring to my open letter to the broadcasters about the proposed (English) party leaders’ debates at the forthcoming election. One day later and this reply would have been too late. As Ms McAleer (yet another ‘Celtic’ name in the Complaints Department!) wrote: “We appreciate your thoughts on the structure and content of the debates but the details of them – both of the BBC’s UK-wide debate and those in each of the nations – have yet to be agreed.”
On Tuesday, those details were released. So, being pedantic about it, the agreement must have been reached by the time of Ms McAleer’s email, just not released. I note in passing the same familiar BBC / establishment thought structure: impartiality is to be ensured by arranging separate, additional and more locally focused debates in each of “the nations” – meaning Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, of course, not England, which is supposed to be adequately catered for by the “UK-wide debate”.
This completely ignores the main point I made in my open letter, which was that there was only really a need for a separate debate in England – about the parties’ England-specific policies – whereas the interests of Scottish and Welsh voters would be adequately served by genuinely UK-specific debates: those dealing with reserved areas of policy, which are the only ones their MPs can influence on behalf of their constituents. Admittedly, that would mean that the leaders of the SNP and Plaid Cymru would also need to be invited to the show. But as those parties may well hold the balance of power in the next parliament – and as they are entitled to vote on English laws, though choosing not to at present – it would be appropriate for viewers across the UK to find out what their policies actually are.
As it turns out, it appears that the themes chosen for the debates do make something of a distinction between reserved and devolved matters. Quote from the press release:
“The first debate will be screened on ITV1. Its themed section will be on domestic affairs. This programme will come from the North West of England. It will be moderated by Alastair Stewart.
“The second debate will be screened on Sky News. Its themed section will be on international affairs. Adam Boulton will be the moderator, and it will come from the South West.
“The final debate will be screened on BBC One. David Dimbleby will be the moderator, and its themed section will be on economic affairs. The programme will be based in the Midlands.”
In other words, the themed bit of the ITV debate will be devoted to devolved matters such as education, health, policing and justice, etc. – but also some reserved issues such as immigration, civil rights and political reform. The Sky and BBC debates will, however, be devoted to exclusively reserved matters. In this way, the BBC and Sky are absolved of the requirement to deal with the issues I raised, at least with respect to the main part of their debates; although some England-specific matters will be discussed in the remainder of those debates.
So the responsibility for ensuring that the great British public is correctly informed about the England-specific ambit of many of the parties’ ‘domestic’ policies falls to ITV, which has hitherto steadfastly ignored any of my correspondence on the subject, in contrast to the BBC and Sky, which have at least replied even if not satisfactorily.
The omens are not good. I note, for instance, that the only mention of ‘England’ in the press release occurs in the passage quoted above referring to the locations from which the debates will be broadcast but not the topics discussed. This is, however, tantamount to an admission that these supposed national-UK debates are in reality English-national debates, even the ones on reserved matters. Otherwise, why would there be any need for separate Scottish and Welsh debates (apart from the addition of the nationalist parties for those countries), given that the only issues Scottish and Welsh voters should be basing their choice of parties on are reserved, UK matters?
But I’ve decided there’s no point pushing this sort of England-focused argument, as the establishment broadcasters just don’t, and won’t, get it. Instead, my email to the ITV spokesperson referred to in the press release – James MacLeod (!!) – tried to pique the Celtic positive-discrimination consciences of the ITV news editors, in the following terms:
Dear Mr MacLeod,
I note from Tuesday’s announcement that ITV will be airing the party leaders’ debate dealing with ‘domestic affairs’. These include devolved matters such as education, the NHS, and policing and justice alongside reserved matters such as immigration and political reform, etc.
I was wondering whether it is ITV’s policy for the debate to ensure that viewers are aware when policy discussions relate to devolved matters and therefore concern England only (plus Wales in the case of justice matters).
I feel sure that ITV would regard it as a matter of ensuring the basic impartiality and accuracy of the broadcast to make viewers across the UK aware of where and how the parties’ domestic policies may actually affect them. This is of particular importance for people watching the broadcast in Scotland and Wales, in two ways:
- Parties will be canvassing the support of voters in those countries, including through their policies on health, education and other devolved matters. However, MPs elected in Scotland and Wales will not be empowered to implement those policies for their constituents, who need to be aware of this fact: their MPs can implement their parties’ policies in these areas only in England
The exclusion from the debates of the leaders of the SNP and Plaid Cymru means that the distinct Scottish and Welsh perspective on these issues cannot be put across to the viewers. However, by making clear that many – perhaps the majority – of the issues discussed do not in fact concern Scottish and Welsh voters, this lessens the charge of political bias that could be made towards ITV by the decision to exclude the SNP and Plaid Cymru. It could be argued they do not need to be present, as their parties have the policy of not voting in Parliament on any of the England-only matters discussed. Any specifically Scottish or Welsh concerns about the implications for people in those countries of government policies and legislation for England could then be expressed in the separate debates to be held in those countries.
I trust you agree that it is important to ensure that voters are aware which policies discussed in the debate affect them and which do not. This will help ensure that the debate indeed has the positive, democracy-enhancing effect we are all hoping for.
Let’s see if the Scottish-sounding Mr MacLeod agrees that the people of Scotland (and, incidentally, those in England and Wales) deserve to be shown the naked English truth that the would-be PMs would rather cover up with their new British Emperor’s clothes.