Sky and ITV’s decisions to exclude SNP from general election TV debates misrepresents political reality, writes Laura Waddell.
When broadcasters pick and choose which parties they invite to a general election debate, taking the first, second, and fourth biggest but leaving out the third, what they are doing is remaking the nation’s politics as they see fit, not as it is.
Sky has chosen to invite the Conservatives, Labour, and Liberal Democrats to a debate on the forthcoming general election, leaving out the SNP who with 125,000 members are the third largest party in the UK, as well as having Scotland’s biggest representation in the UK-wide poltics this debate is about. It’s not only obnoxiously myopic on the part of southern broadcasters to cut out the Scottish contingent, but it takes shoddy editorial license with our democracy.
The move breaks with prior convention. A similar debate in the run-up to the 2015 election notably included the seven most popular parties. For once, the tit-for-tat, back-and-forth soundbite fest such debates can fall prey to was disrupted. The broader line-up arguably made for better, more useful coverage, particularly for undecided voters. It’s good for all of us to hear ideas other than what we think we already believe.
Smaller parties quite often bring to the table alternative, novel, and sometimes unconventional views, which can shake things up a bit. Candidates were forced out of the habit of going for their closest opponents and had to answer to a wider range of perspectives and policies. It showed voters more of their available options. But even so, if the panel must be limited to three – or four – it must be selected fairly.
Treated like fringe party
Why, ahead of an election where Scotland’s future, as ever and always, lies in the balance, should a broadcaster be able to mould the playing field to their liking, rather than representing it accurately and fairly.
Viewers in Scotland will be watching the debate. They’ll get to see representatives of parties they can vote for, but not the party currently defending the lion’s share of Scottish seats, and who have strongly advocated for Scottish and, for that matter, UK-wide interests on Brexit.
To cut this out, as though irrelevant, is outrageously unfair. When the SNP are treated like a fringe party, despite the chunk of Westminster seats they hold, it tells us something about how Scotland representatives are viewed by London-based political editors.
But viewers in England will also miss the opportunity to hear from the third biggest party in Westminster, a party who vote on key national matters that pertain to them, and who have provided a strong opposition to the Conservative government. It’s a curious fallacy that a party without candidates in one region is completely irrelevant to voters in that region. By discarding the SNP entirely from the debate, it’s as though the general election and by extension the UK parliament is for England only, but that is a terrible misrepresentation. Constructing a line-up considered most palatable and relevant to audiences in England should be the stuff of regional drama, not political broadcasting. This is not fantasy football: it’s real life.
Tedious and xenophobic
Do Sky bosses think their biggest audience share of Engilsh viewers can’t cope with a debate which includes the SNP? ITV have limited their debate to only Johnson and Corbyn. I don’t believe that English viewers are unable to sit through a broadcast where one party explicitly represents Scotland.
Yes, the comments online whenever BBC Question Time sets foot up north can frequently be tedious and xenophonic, but where that sentiment exists, frankly, it’s just tough luck. For the meantime, at least, we’re in it together.
Scottish viewers are used to taking England-central broadcasting and media in their stride when it comes to entertainment, complaining only when it feels we’re not getting our fair share of representation in matters meant to be UK oriented.
If you’ve ever turned on the TV or radio while on holiday in another European country, it can be striking to discover how frequently their news and current affairs coverage delves into political stories from other counties. The degree to which Brexit was covered in France, for example, was surprisingly detailed when I was there in the summer and switched on the TV for the novelty of foreign language discussion and putting my extremely rusty French into action. So much for escapism while I drank my morning coffee and croissant on holiday, but it was an eye-opener.
It’s true, BBC Scotland is offering a more representative debate – but it shouldn’t take a regional channel to represent national politics where national broadcasters have failed. Perhaps the UK wouldn’t be in such a sorry state if we treated viewers already opting to tune in to politial broadcasting as intelligent enough to sit through anything not directly spoon fed to them, mashed down into an easy-to-swallow mush of what they already know and are used to. British coverage often seems to forget Northern Ireland even exists, never mind further afield. The backstop discussion has been plagued by insufficient understanding. There’s mass confusion about what the UK relationship with the EU has even been up to this point. So it is unsurprising but depressing nonetheless to consider the third biggest party in the UK parliament is kicked off stage for being too regional ahead of a general election. Is this really the state of our politics as a nation? That’s a rhetorical question, obviously.
Sky should redress the balance and invite the SNP. This issue is not about party politics, but about accuracy and fairness in the run-up to a general election. And perhaps we need to look at electoral rules if the fourth party can be given precedence above the third by broadcasters staging debates. Besides, who wouldn’t want to see Nicola Sturgeon take on Johnson? She said on Tuesday, “I’ll debate any of them, any time, any place.” She’d wipe the floor with him.