Channel 4 bids for leaders’ debate in run-up to election

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Next year’s general election could feature four televised leaders’ debates, after Channel 4 said it had secured agreement from other broadcasters that it should be involved.

Executives from Channel 4 told a House of Lords committee that they were “excluded” from the broadcasts at the last election in 2010, when the BBC, ITV and Sky News each staged a live debate between then Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his challengers David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Channel 4 instead televised a debate between would-be Chancellors of the Exchequer.

No agreement has yet been reached between the parties on whether the debates – the first of their kind in UK national elections – should be repeated in 2015.

Intense negotiations are under way over whether the number, timing and format for any debates should follow the pattern set in 2010, when three debates were held at weekly intervals, with each leader given fixed times to answer questions in turn.

Liberal Democrat leader Mr Clegg has said he is ready to sign up for debates, but Prime Minister Mr Cameron has yet to commit himself. Labour has said its priority is to secure a televised clash between the two “prospective prime ministers” – Mr Cameron and Ed Miliband.

Channel 4 head of news and current affairs Dorothy Byrne suggested that the channel’s involvement could ensure the debates reach more young people and voters from the ethnic minorities, and might allow greater “diversity” of format.

Asked if she would like to include interactive involvement of the TV audience at home through Twitter, Ms Byrne told the Lords Communications Committee: “If that is possible. But that might not be possible because everybody needs to agree with it. Politicians would have to feel confident.”

She said the first set of debates had been “a good thing”, but had all followed the same pattern.

“It would have been good if it was possible to have some diversity in the form and style, but we absolutely accept that that is not up to us,” said Ms Byrne.

If political parties and broadcasters insisted on sticking to the same format, Channel 4 would not put its foot down, she suggested, telling the committee: “We are not here to rock the boat.”

She added: “These are more than mere television programmes. These have become important parts of Britain’s democratic process and therefore as a public service broadcaster – particularly one with an ability to reach young people and ethnic minorities – it is really absolutely vital that we be involved.

“The other broadcasters have accepted that completely and we are now involved.”