Letter from People’s Vote Campaign to broadcasters today, including, Lord Hall, BBC Director General, John Hardie, Chief Executive of ITN and John Ryley, Head of Sky News.
Dear Lord Hall,
We note media reports that 10 Downing Street has raised the idea of hosting a TV debate on Brexit between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn.
The proposed format and the circumstances are unprecedented. We are not in a General Election or a referendum campaign, nobody is standing for office, while Parliament is clearly divided - as is the public. We believe that on this issue, by far the most important facing the UK, at this time. it is vital that broadcasters recognise their duty to ensure political balance.
Therefore, we are writing to you today to express our concerns about this proposed format. Indeed, it would be impossible to meet either the obligations set out in the BBC Charter or by Ofcom to provide “fair treatment, breadth of opinion and due impartiality” if those campaigning for a public vote on Brexit with an option of staying in the EU are excluded from the debate.
In 2016, during coverage of the referendum campaign, the BBC’s guidelines made clear that while “there is no requirement for balance between the parties in discussing the referendum issues… the general obligation for fair treatment remains.”
In considering the participants in a televised debate on the UK’s membership of the European Union, broadcasters should reflect that in 2016 the public voted by a narrow margin of 52 to 48 per cent to leave the European Union. Consistent opinion polling since then has shown that opinion has changed with the most recent surveys showing a 54 to 46 per cent majority in favour of staying in the EU. These same surveys show the idea of a People’s Vote is more popular than either the Government’s proposed terms for withdrawal or a “no deal” departure from the EU.
Broadcasters should note that Scotland, as well as Northern Ireland, voted to Remain in the EU. The SNP is the third largest party in Westminster and the First Minister of Scotland is a supporter of having a People’s Vote on Brexit. The Leaders of the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party also support a People’s Vote. At the same time, former Prime Ministers Sir John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have made clear they believe having a People’s Vote is the best way of resolving this issue.
However, Mrs May has repeatedly stated her opposition to this proposal and, while Labour’s official conference policy is to support a People’s Vote if it cannot get a General Election, no fair observer would conclude that a debate between her and Mr Corbyn at this stage in the process could now reflect the strength of public or parliamentary support for handing the final decision back to the UK electorate.
In recent weeks, Sky News has launched a petition calling for an independent commission to ensure TV debates become a regular fixture by taking “decision making out of the politicians and broadcasters' hands”. The current debate proposal appears to be part of a campaign by the Prime Minister to win support for the terms of her Brexit deal.
A format agreed hastily between Downing Street, the Office of the Leader of the Opposition and broadcasters, would damage the reputation of TV debates, as well as perhaps, British broadcasting in general.
Most important of all, excluding the voice of millions of people cannot serve the interests of our fragile democracy at this crucial moment.
We look forward to your early response.
Tom Baldwin, Director of Communications, People’s Vote Campaign