FIRST Minister Alex Salmond has condemned plans for historic televised debates between the UK's three main party leaders ahead of next year's general election as "rigged".
The Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaders will take part in a series of debates on the BBC, ITV and Sky. But the unprecedented events will have no place for the SNP.
The move has angered the Nationalists, who have argued that, as the governing party in Scotland and one of the main UK parties, they should be involved in the programmes.
Yesterday, the broadcasters said steps would be taken to ensure that other parties, including those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, were given proper coverage in line with their obligations for due impartiality. But the First Minister condemned that as "entirely unacceptable" and said it showed "an extraordinarily high-handed attitude and depressingly metropolitan mindset".
He said the SNP could not have its voice "silenced by rigged debates".
The Nationalists have previously suggested they could take legal action to stop the debates being broadcast in Scotland if their party was not involved – a position they are still considering.
The announcement of the debates followed lengthy discussions between the broadcasters and the three political parties.
Under the terms of the deal, the BBC, Sky and ITV will each host one debate during the campaign.
The programmes, lasting between 85 and 90 minutes, will be filmed in front of a selected studio audience and will be broadcast in peak time.
It is the first time in British political history the main party leaders have agreed to take part in a televised pre-election debate.
Previous attempts to arrange such an event have always foundered due to the reluctance of one or other of the leaders to risk what they believe is a strong position by taking part.
Under the terms of the deal Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Tory leader David Cameron and the Lib Dems' Nick Clegg will appear in each of the debates, which will all follow the same format, with about half of the discussion time being themed.
The first debate will be on ITV and be presented by Alastair Stewart; Sky will produce the second, with Adam Boulton chairing the event; David Dimbleby will host the third for the BBC.
Mr Brown said: "The country needs to debate whether we lock in the recovery or whether we choke it off; whether we protect the NHS, schools and police or whether we put them at risk to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy few, and to debate whether we continue to put Britain at the top table in Europe or whether we consign it to the extreme fringes."
Mr Cameron welcomed the agreement, saying the debates would be "a thoroughly good thing".
Mr Clegg said he hoped they would help politicians re-engage with the public and encourage a higher turnout at the ballot box.
Mr Dimbleby said he was looking forward to chairing the BBC's debate.
"The discussions about this have been going on for so many years that I had given up hope of its ever happening," he said, adding: "I think it's a good day for democracy."
The broadcasters each said they would be taking steps to ensure the other parties received proper coverage.
The BBC said it would be holding separate debates in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland among all the main parties, and these would be broadcast on BBC Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and across the UK on the BBC News channel.
ITV said it would observe its obligations of due impartiality in its electoral coverage and give airtime in other programming to the views of other parties, as appropriate.
Sky News said it intended to broadcast separate debates to be held in Scotland and Wales among the main parties there.
Following the leaders' debate on Sky, all political parties that had significant levels of support at a national level would be offered opportunities across Sky News's output to respond, it said.
Mr Salmond was far from happy with those reassurances and he attacked the idea of the main debates going ahead without the involvement of the SNP.
In a strongly worded response, he said: "It is entirely unacceptable to Scotland, as well as to the SNP, for the broadcasters to exclude the party that forms the government of Scotland – and, indeed, is now leading in Westminster election polls. If these debates are to be at all relevant to their audiences, they must reflect the democratic reality of Scotland and political diversity across the UK."
He went on: "The broadcasters have got to meet their public service obligations to audiences across the UK, and for them to propose debates which signally fail to do so shows an extraordinarily high-handed attitude and depressingly metropolitan mindset."
The First Minister said the SNP would "seek guarantees" of inclusion from the broadcasters "given their inescapable duty to ensure fairness and impartiality in election-related coverage in Scotland".
He said the SNP stance on issues such as Trident differed widely from the main UK parties, and should be heard in the main debates. "In other words, both from the Scottish and UK perspectives, the governing parties of Scotland and Wales cannot have our voices silenced by rigged debates."
Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy said: "I am very pleased that these debates will go ahead. Scots will now be able to see the people who could be prime minister debate live before the vote."
He reiterated his invitation to shadow Scottish secretary David Mundell, the Liberal Democrats' Scottish spokesman Alistair Carmichael and the SNP's Westminster leader Angus Robertson to join him in a TV debate.
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