PROPOSALS for a series of unprecedented live television debates for the Westminster elections featuring the three main UK party leaders have run into immediate controversy. SNP leader Alex Salmond has denounced his exclusion from the plan as outrageous. The party has also dropped hints about a legal challenge to the BBC.
On a general level the proposal is indeed unfair to smaller parties, given the revulsion felt by many voters over the expenses scandal and when there is an upsurge in interest in political alternatives. Mr Salmond feels he has particular grounds for grievance. First, as he is the leader of the SNP and the SNP constitutes the government of Scotland, he should share a platform with Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Second, the latest Ipsos Mori opinion poll in Scotland shows the SNP in the lead for Westminster voting intentions. TV debates that exclude the party on course to win most votes in Scotland would be perverse. Third, the BBC has a legal obligation for impartiality and fairness, and non-inclusion of the SNP would, the party feels, be a breach of this principle.
To meet these objections, an additional special round of TV debates is envisaged for Scotland, representing all four main parties, including the SNP. Some compromise featuring this proposal looks the most likely outcome. However, this does not meet Mr Salmond's demand for equivalence or for equality of treatment as a party leader.
Clearly, Mr Salmond and the SNP are entitled to equal representation in any televised debates that are proposed for Scotland. However, if the SNP insists on equality of representation with the leaders of the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour parties at UK level, lengthy wrangling and fraught negotiations lie ahead. From the standpoint of Scottish voters, it would be grossly unfair to have the encounters between the UK party leaders banned from Scottish screens because of an SNP objection. Such a legal proscription would be deeply undesirable.
Voters in Scotland participating in a UK election should be able, along with their counterparts south of the Border, to hear and see the leaders of the UK parties on the main issues of the day. And there are other issues than fiscal autonomy and "devo max". Voters want to hear what the policies are on defence, foreign affairs and, not least, how the parties intend to tackle the UK's ballooning budget deficit and debt crisis. It may be argued that digital TV enables Scottish viewers to switch to an English BBC station. But that would insult and infuriate many and be deeply prejudicial to BBC Scotland's audience share.
There are other points to consider. Mr Salmond is not standing as a Westminster MP. Nor is the SNP fielding anything like the same number of candidates as the main UK parties. English viewers would find a legally imposed inclusion of the SNP on a national programme sectional, divisive and deeply unpopular.
It is thus in everyone's interest to secure agreement on an additional set of television debates in Scotland. Banning programmes at UK level is not the way for any party to secure support.