Letter: Format choice for electoral TV debates

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The Independent Online
Sir: Tony Hall may blame the politicians , but the BBC and ITV's attempts to secure the debates were a textbook example from the broadcasters of how not to do it.

In their self-serving attempts to secure the kudos of the debates first for themselves and then on an exclusive shared basis, they failed to live up to their public service remit, betraying it still further by becoming political footballs themselves while an election campaign was actually under way.

By the time Tony Hall, Anne Sloman and Richard Tait (editor-in-chief ITN) had sprung into action their hopes were doomed with Labour since they appeared to be acting at the bidding of John Major, following his widely leaked change of heart to participate. Michael Dobbs and Conservative Central Office then went on to use the terrestrial broadcasters as a goad against their opponents.

Leaders' debates are far too important to be viewed as the exclusive property of any particular TV company. To ensure they take place next election, a third party - neither broadcaster, nor party political - should take the lead establishing a format which could then be offered to the politicians and broadcasters on a take-it-or-leave-it public access basis.

Perhaps the Electoral Reform or Hansard Societies, or even the Newspaper Publishers Association could adopt similar roles to bodies such as the League of Women Voters, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and the Presidential Debates Commission in the US. Sky News stands willing to help such public service efforts.

As television professionals we failed all our audiences last time - whatever their chosen news channel. The BBC and ITN must not be allowed to mess it up again.


Political Editor

Sky News

British Sky Broadcasting Ltd

London SW1