Letter: Debate that never was

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The Independent Online
LORD HOLME'S article on the party leaders' television debate that never happened (Media, 27 April) added some fascinating new information - above all the confirmation that the parties did conduct secret negotiations with one another face-to-face. Lord Holme worked hard to make the debates happen and it is characteristically generous of him to give the broadcasters credit for their efforts even though he deeply disapproved of some of our tactics. But his account of the role played in the negotiations by ITN and ITV is wrong on a number of important facts.

It is not the case that ITN and ITV, working together, put a proposal to the Conservatives first, leaving the opposition parties and the BBC "sitting unhappily on the sidelines". We approached all three parties at the same time with the same proposal. Far from being on the sidelines, the BBC was making similar proposals to ours to all three parties.

It is not the case that the Conservatives instantly "accepted" the ITN/ITV proposal. They did not, and we negotiated with them on the same basis as the other two parties. They finally accepted our proposal as Labour set a deadline and the negotiations collapsed at the end of the first week of the election campaign.

Lord Holme says we gave too much to the Conservatives - and told us so at the time. But at the same time the Conservatives were telling us we had given too much to the Liberal Democrats and Labour was telling us that they wanted an almost completely different programme from the one we had proposed.

The reality is that by the end of the first week of the election campaign both we and the BBC had resolved all the serious objections and obstacles to a debate taking place. The final issues of minor adjustments to timings and structure would have seemed trivial to anyone outside the hothouse world of politics in the middle of a general election. In the end none of the parties wanted the debate enough to make some very small compromises. Of course the broadcasters have lessons to learn - but the parties really cannot blame us for their failure to agree.




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