People’s Vote makes formal complaint over TV debate format which confines other points of view to a sideshow - People's Vote

People’s Vote makes formal complaint over TV debate format which confines other points of view to a sideshow

The People’s Vote campaign has tonight written to the BBC and Ofcom following about media reports it is proceeding with a plan to go ahead with a debate between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn with other points of view confined to a sideshow.  Such a debate format risks damaging the BBC's deserved reputation for fairness and impartiality, and any decision that excludes the voice of millions of people supporting our position – or confines it to the margins of the debate – does not serve the interests of our democracy.

The full text of the letter is below:

 

Dear Lord Hall,

I am writing to you again following statements this morning by the BBC Press Office News team, which confirmed that “the Prime Minister has accepted the BBC’s offer to take part in a debate on the Brexit deal on Sunday 9th December… and hope to hear soon from the Labour Party”. It adds that the BBC has “been discussing debate formats with both parties and will announce further details soon”.

We have received a reply from Fran Unsworth this evening, explaining a little more about how you intend to balance this debate. But I’m afraid it does not adequately addresses our concerns.

As I stated on Monday, it would be impossible to meet the obligations set out by Ofcom and the BBC’s own editorial guidelines 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.

Section 4.4.1 of the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines state that the BBC must be “inclusive, reflecting a breadth and diversity of opinion.” 

In addition, 4.4.2 of the guidelines state “the omission of an important perspective, in a particular context, may jeopardise perceptions of the BBC's impartiality.”

We understand you are considering a panel of other participants who would not be in the main debate but would be asked for their views at various points during the programme. Even if such a panel included political figures representing our side of the argument, this would not be acceptable to us if they were relegated to a sideshow away from the main debate between Mrs May and Mr Corbyn. 

I would also draw your attention to clause 7.1 -7.2 of the OFCOM Code which makes it clear that broadcasters must treat participants in its programmes fairly:

Section 7.1 of Ofcom’s code states: “Broadcasters must avoid unjust or unfair treatment of individuals or organisations in programmes.”

Section 7.2 of Ofcom’s code states: “Broadcasters and programme makers should normally be fair in their dealings with potential contributors to programmes unless, exceptionally, it is justified to do otherwise.

In considering these rules, the BBC would be well advised to reflect that in 2016 the public voted by a narrow margin of 52 to 48 per cent to leave the European Union and that the most recent surveys show 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.

Any debate about Brexit must also take proper account of how 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.

As I stated previously, Mrs May has repeatedly set her face against the idea of a People’s Vote and, while she now acknowledges that failure to secure her deal could result in “no Brexit,” insists this cannot happen on her watch.  Labour’s official conference policy is to support a People’s Vote if it cannot get a General Election and recent comments from senior members of the Shadow Cabinet suggest the party is moving further. But given some of Mr Corbyn’s recent remarks on Brexit, no fair observer would conclude that a debate focused largely on him and the Prime Minister could currently reflect the support that exists for a People’s Vote with an option of staying in the EU.

Such a debate format risks damaging the BBC's deserved reputation for fairness and impartiality. And any decision that excludes the voice of millions of people supporting our position – or confines it to the margins of the debate – does not serve the interests of our democracy.

We now intend making a formal complaint to OFCOM about the format of the BBC’s proposed debate.

This is attached below.

Yours ever,

Tom Baldwin,

Director of Communications, People’s Vote Campaign

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Formal Complaint to OFCOM

I am writing to make a formal complaint about plans by the BBC to broadcast a debate between the Prime Minister, Theresa May, and Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, on the terms of Brexit. This morning, the BBC Press Office confirmed that the Prime Minister has accepted the BBC’s offer to take part in a debate on Sunday 9th December and that the BBC has “been discussing debate formats with both parties and will announce further details soon”.

Hosting a TV debate that is confined to the Prime Minister and Jeremy Corbyn on Brexit would not only breach OFCOM’s guidelines but also the BBC’s own Editorial Guidelines.

A panel of other participants who would not be in the main debate but would be asked for their views at various points during the programme. Even if such a panel included political figures representing our side of the argument, this would not be acceptable to us if they were relegated to a sideshow away from the main debate between Mrs May and Mr Corbyn. 

OFCOM has already confirmed that any such debate, “as a major matter of political controversy” would have to comply with the special impartiality requirements contain in Section 5 of Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code.

5.12 of OFCOM’s code states “..in dealing with matters of major political and industrial controversy and major matters relating to current public policy an appropriately wide range of significant views must be included and given due weight in each programme or in clearly linked and timely programmes. Views and facts must not be misrepresented.

5.13 of OFCOM’s code states “Broadcasters should not give undue prominence to the views and opinions of particular persons or bodies on matters of political or industrial controversy and matters relating to current public policy in all the programmes included in any service (listed above) taken as a whole.

In addition, Section 4.4.1 of the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines state that the BBC must beinclusive, reflecting a breadth and diversity of opinion”. 

And section 4.4.2 of the BBC’s Editorial guidelines state “the omission of an important perspective, in a particular context, may jeopardise perceptions of the BBC's impartiality.”

It would be impossible to meet either the obligations set out by both OFCOM and the BBC 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 main 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, the BBC must reflect that in 2016 the public voted by a narrow margin of 52 to 48 per cent to leave the European Union, and that since then, consistent opinion polling has shown that public 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.

Any debate about Brexit, must also reflect 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.

Any intention by the BBC to host a tv debate solely between the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition on Brexit would not only exclude the voice of many millions of people at this crucial time, but in our view, would clearly breach both OFCOM and the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines.

Due to the pressing nature of this issue, I look forward to a reply at the earliest opportunity.

Yours ever,

Tom Baldwin,

Director of Communications, People’s Vote Campaign

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