Ian Burrell: Al Jazeera offers fresh input to UK election coverage


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The Independent Online

A late and unexpected arrival to the televised general election debates arrives from the east in the shape of the Qatari-owned network Al Jazeera English.

AJE, which launched its fabulous new London studios high up in the Shard building last week, is planning to give a platform to the likes of SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and Ukip’s Nigel Farage ahead of May’s election.

A debate for the leaders of the minority parties – also potentially including Natalie Bennett, of the Greens, Leanne Wood, of Plaid Cymru, and representatives of Northern Irish politics – is currently under discussion and sounds sensible.

In the wake of the close-run Scottish referendum, it would be remiss to exclude Celtic voices from discussions of the future of the United Kingdom over the next five years. It would also be nice to hear some female voices as, at the time of writing at least, there won’t be any in the main televised debates.

The BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky News are proposing three exchanges in April, with the first including Farage alongside Nick Clegg, Ed Miliband and David Cameron. The second round will exclude the Ukip leader and the final face-off will be between Cameron and Miliband.

“We would like to have a part to play,” Al Anstey, the managing director of AJE, told me. “Broadcasters play an incredibly important role in that process and we will be taking part in that.”

During the American elections of 2012, Al Jazeera staged an opposition presidential debate, marking it out from the big networks which operate a blackout of independent candidates and concentrate exclusively on the Republicans and Democrats. Al Jazeera’s debate at the University Club of Chicago gave a platform to the Libertarian, Green, Constitution and Justice parties.

AJE is anxious that the election debates as a whole are not exclusive and that the minority parties are both heard and subjected to scrutiny.

“We are certainly having a look at how the ducks are being lined up and [hope] we can contribute to a really inclusive process,” said Anstey. “We are looking at various ways of achieving that – it’s an incredibly important story.”