Political bias? Not likely. But the exclusion of Greens and the SNP from the TV debates raises a mystery.

Commentators, tweeters, and ordinary folk alike on both sides of the political spectrum are often too quick to shout ‘BBC bias’ when the organisation expresses anything that may even remotely contradict their beliefs.

This is understandable. After all, the BBC is the only publicly-funded news organisation. Ergo it is the only such organisation independent from corporate interests; whether or not the capacity to influence editorial direction would exist in that hypothetical context. But that is a little irrelevant.

The difficulty lies in echoing the views of the public in a way that is both representative, and balanced. Personally, I think the BBC does a good job. Sure, it tends to lean right on occasions, and promotes liberal values a little more than others would like. And sure, on some topics, it rigs its coverage beyond the point of satire. But the status quo beats the alternative; that is to reach a state of ‘balance’ by promoting neither side to a debate.

That said, the BBC’s stance on the Green Party (and the Scottish National Party, for that matter), in the context of its stance on Ukip, is totally inconsistent.

natalie bennett

This morning the TV networks (Sky, Channel 4, BBC, ITV) released their proposals for the leaders’ debates:

  • Sky News & Channel 4: Head-to-head debate between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, chaired by Jeremy Paxman, and presented by Sky News’ Kay Burley.
  • BBC One: Debate between David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, presented by David Dimbleby.
  • ITV: Debate between David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage, chaired by Julie Etchingham.

There would be little traction in using these proposals to suggest right-wing bias. It would in fact benefit the Conservative party to include the Green Party as it might risk fragmenting the left vote, which is uncharacteristically united. There are no surprises, then, that Ed Miliband is pleased with these proposals, and David Cameron is not.

It may also be misplaced tosuggest anti-Green bias in the BBC, as its arrangement (arguably the most rational) would pit the leaders of the three largest parties (by Commons’ seats) against one another.

But a spokesperson did not use the above excuse when questioned about the Green Party’s absence on this morning’s Daily Politics.

Instead, some vague sentiments along the lines of ‘standing’, ‘poll ratings’ and ‘public opinion’ were used to to justify why only four party leaders were invited, not five, or even six (including the leader of the Scottish National Party).

Okay then. Taking this arbitrary number (four) into account, let’s examine a range of measures alluding to ‘standing’, ‘poll ratings’ and ‘public opinion’, and see if we arrive at the same conclusion.


Scenario #1: The parties with the most number of seats should participate in the leaders’ debates.

This is fairly straightforward. For a party’s leader to receive an invitation, the party must hold a minimum number of seats in the house of commons. But this minimum value is arbitrary; where would one draw the line? Common sense dictates that it would be impractical to host a debate with more than six leaders. The TV networks drew this line under four.

MPs per political party

Top four: Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Democratic Unionist Party
Top six: Conservatives, Labour, Liberal DemocratsDemocratic Unionist PartyScottish National Party, Sinn Fein.

You could suggest that only pan-British parties should be allowed to participate. This leads to a complication, since the Greens and Ukip hold the same number of MPs, as does Respect incidentally.

Scenario #2: The most popular parties (based on opinion polls) should participate in the leaders’ debates.

This is significantly less straightforward. Polls are not projections, rather they provide a rough measure of popular opinion. Trends are more revealing than these contemporary snapshots. I have used Lord Ashcroft’s latest poll (released today).

Ashcroft poll 13.10.14Top four*: Labour, Conservatives, Ukip, Liberal Democrats.
Top six: Labour, Conservatives, Ukip, Liberal Democrats, Greens, Scottish National Party**

*This measure would be compatible with the assertion that qualification is based exclusively on public opinion. But the gap between the Liberal Democrats and the Greens is thin. Trends show the Lib Dems have held a consistent 2-3 point lead over the Greens, but the Conservative vote itself swung four points between now and October 3-5. It would be insincere to say the above snapshot could absolutely reflect public in six months’ time; which is likely to become more volatile closer to the election date.

**By virtue of holding the third largest party membership in Britain, I have considered the Scottish National Party the sixth most popular political party.

Scenario #3: The most popular parties (based on membership) should participate in the leaders’ debates.

Thankfully, this scenario is not complicated. The largest party in terms of membership should be invited to participate in the leaders’ debate. Note, if calculated based on members per million, the Scottish National Party would come out on top as its members are only sourced from the 5 million-strong pool of Scots, not 64 million Brits.

Membership per political party

Top four: Labour, Conservatives, Scottish National Party, Liberal Democrats.
Top six: Labour, Conservatives, Scottish National Party, Liberal DemocratsUkip, Greens.

I have included the British National Party because its membership is surprisingly high, and the BBC decided once to invite human toad Nick Griffin onto Question Time because, let’s face it, it made good tele.

Correction: Green party membership is now at least 26,000 strong.

 Scenario #4: All parties that are contesting all seats should participate in the leaders’ debate. 

This is based more on principal than anything else. If the contest is true, democratic, and fair, the parties contesting every seat at the General Election should be given the same platform as one another. The logic lies in that every one of these parties has the potential to govern with a majority. By extension, no one should be given the unfair advantage of free publicity over another, especially where a public service broadcaster is concerned. This would re-enforce the ideal that an election should won on the politics and policy alone. But we all know this isn’t true.

Hey, every little helps?

Gunning for 650: Conservatives, Labour, Liberal DemocratsGreen, Ukip.

Step Up to Serve launch

Based on the above four scenarios, the Scottish National Party and the Greens have a right to feel aggrieved.

The Scottish National Party is the third largest party in the United Kingdom, and retain the fourth highest number of MPs. The Greens, meanwhile, have held more MPs than Ukip for four-and-a-half years, and lie only 2-3 points behind the Liberal Democrats in the opinion polls.

But as stated, there is little traction to suggest this reflects right-wing bias since the Greens’ absence is likelier to reinforce, not fragment, the left vote. Neither can the Greens’ exclusion be considered left-wing bias as to exclude the Greens would be to exclude a left-leaning point of view entirely.

One could also argue that Farage is infinitely more entertaining than Bennett; that including the Ukip leader would lead to higher ratings (which would please advertisers). But this is clearly not a comedy panel show, and people will not be tuning in based on who turns up on the night. And with regards to the BBC, its revenue is not reliant on advertising in any case.

But there isn’t one scenario, excluding prohibiting nationalist parties from taking part, under which the Green Party cannot be excluded without also excluding either Ukip, or the Liberal Democrats.

So this begs the question:

What the hell is really going on?







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