Letter proposing leaders’ debate without Cameron is ‘really interesting’ says BBC Director-General

Tony Hall was responding to letters from Labour, the Lib Dems and Ukip

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The Independent Online

Tony Hall, the BBC Director-General, has said the suggestion that broadcasters could proceed with a general election leaders’ debate without David Cameron if necessary was a “very interesting” development.

In co-ordinated letters, the Labour, Lib Dem and UKIP leaders asked broadcasters to press ahead with televised debates even if the Prime Minister refuses to take part.

Mr Cameron reiterated at Prime Minster's Questions that he will consider only two debates – a direct head-to-head with Ed Miliband and one featuring all parties in Parliament including the Green Party.

Lord Hall of Birkenhead told The Independent: “We’re negotiating at the moment. I think what the three party leaders said this morning is very interesting indeed. There’s a whole lot of negotiations going on. All the broadcasters want the debates to happen.”

Asked if the BBC could countenance a debate in which David Cameron was represented by an “empty podium”, Lord Hall said: “I really hope the debates can take place. What happened this morning (the letter) is really interesting.”

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Nick Clegg, David Cameron and Gordon Brown at 2010 ITV debate (AP)

He added: “It’s now about a whole lot of stuff going on behind closed doors to get this to work. I’ve been talking to my teams and they want to get on with the negotiating. We’re talking to ITV, Channel 4, Sky, everybody, about a whole raft of things.

“I think the strength of our debate offer is to get us all agreeing what the right way forward is for these debates.”

Under broadcasting impartiality requirements, a debate without Mr Cameron could require a presenter to read out the Conservatives' arguments in the Prime Minister's absence, or the channels ensuring that the party's policies are aired adequately in their election coverage outside the debates.

In a rallying call to staff, Mr Hall also warned that the BBC would not be intimidated by politicians during the election campaign.

He said: “There may be some – I hope only a few – who try to use the impending Charter Review to influence our coverage of politics in this most sensitive of political years. We will never let that happen, because to do so would betray the public and the ideals of the BBC.”

He said that impartiality would guide the BBC’s news coverage, and the corporation will report “without fear or favour”. 

Lord Hall accepted that “we will get things wrong – it's inevitable – and we will reflect and put things right where we have. But we will never confuse justifiable complaints with naked bullying.”

Lord Hall said the BBC would need to keep raising its game in 2015 to carry on serving the public effectively. He warned of  a moment of “high risk” for the BBC – and the public who use its services - with the very real danger that the BBC could be “diminished” or “stuck in an analogue cul-de-sac, without the freedom to reinvent itself and public service broadcasting.”

The BBC should be willing to “defend the principles of public service broadcasting”, and make the case based on the quality of the BBC’s output and the vital role the BBC has in ensuring that the UK remains the most imaginative and creative country in the world, Lord Hall told BBC staff.

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