The Conservative Party is at war with two of the UK’s main broadcasters tonight, with Boris Johnson accused of “running scared” of scrutiny by avoiding set-piece TV events.
The BBC issued an extraordinary ultimatum to the Prime Minister today by refusing to allow him to appear on the Andrew Marr show tomorrow unless Downing Street confirms a time for Mr Johnson to be interviewed by broadcaster Andrew Neil.
It comes after the Conservative Party filed a formal complaint over a Channel 4 News climate change debate on Thursday night, which the Prime Minister rejected an invitation to appear on.
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Nicola Sturgeon and Jeremy Corbyn have already faced tough questioning from Mr Neil, with Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson and the Brexit Party’s Nigel Farage scheduled to be interviewed next week.
However, despite talks continuing between the BBC and the Conservatives, no time has been set for Mr Johnson’s appearance.
A BBC source was quoted as saying: “He won’t be doing Marr until we have confirmed and announced a date for the Neil interview.”
In Thursday’s debate, Mr Johnson and Mr Farage, who also did not appear, were represented in Channel 4 TV studio by ice sculptures, as leaders including Mr Corbyn and Ms Sturgeon debated climate policy.
The Conservative Party said it offered to have Environment Secretary Michael Gove take part in the programme.
Mr Gove appeared at Channel 4’s headquarters shortly before the broadcast with a camera crew to film an exchange with the network’s news editor, Ben de Pear.
The Prime Minister’s father, Stanley Johnson – who was at Channel 4 to join the post-debate “spin room” – was seen in discussion with Mr Gove.
After the programme, Mr de Pear said: “It was very kind of Michael Gove to offer himself to appear on Channel 4 News this evening, and we always welcome him on the programme.
“However, as we made clear to him repeatedly, because he is not the leader of the Conservative Party, his participation was not required.”
'Provocative partisan slant'
In a letter to the broadcast regulator Ofcom, the Conservatives accused Channel 4 of breaching impartiality rules by staging “a provocative partisan stunt, which would itself constitute making a political opinion in its own right”.
A Tory source was also quoted in the Daily Telegraph as saying: “If we are re-elected, we will have to review Channel 4’s public service broadcasting obligations.”
Shadow culture secretary Tom Watson wrote to Ofcom about the matter and said it was “deeply concerning that a governing party would wish to restrict the free press”.
In his letter, he said: “I’m urging you to call out this meddling and demand that whichever political party wins the next general election allows Ofcom to operate free from political interference.”
Former Tory culture secretary Ed Vaizey added to the criticism, saying it is “not a sensible strategy for political parties to threaten broadcasters”.
Mr Johnson insisted he wants an “unbridled” media after Labour accused the Tories of wanting to “restrict the free press” by threatening Channel 4.
Answering questions during a phone-in on LBC radio, the Prime Minister said it was “a shame” that his non-appearance overshadowed the substance of the climate debate.
“What we want is a free, fair and exuberant, unbridled media. That’s what I want,” Mr Johnson added.
“I think a free press is one of the glories of our country and I want to protect it and enshrine it.”
No interview with Neil
Asked if he would be interviewed by Mr Neil, he said: “I’m much happier, frankly, to talk about my policies, what we’re doing for the people of this country, rather than endless debates about media and process.”
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell accused Mr Johnson of “running scared” of being interviewed by Mr Neil.
Speaking to the BBC’s Today programme, he said: “The reason he is doing it is because he thinks, like his Bullingdon Club friends, that they’re above the rest of us – that they don’t need to be held to account, they don’t need to treated like the rest of us.
“And so what he’s doing now is he’s avoiding, he’s running scared. Because he knows that Andrew Neil will take him apart. He’s running scared.”
Mr McDonnell added that if Mr Johnson does agree to take part, he would have “played” the BBC by pushing his appearance beyond the point when many postal ballots are expected to have already been returned.
'Cannot be trusted'
Scottish Green Party leader Patrick Harvie said Mr Johnson “cannot be trusted, cannot be believed” after failing to take part in the Channel 4 debate.
“I think it’s a bad sign the Conservatives couldn’t be bothered sending their leader to the climate debate,” Mr Harvie said at a climate demonstration in Glasgow yesterday.
“This is someone that said he would lie down in front of the bulldozers to stop the Heathrow expansion.
“He was lying then and he’s lying about pretty much everything else that he says.”
Scottish Green MSP Ross Greer added: “I remember when I was at primary school there was always that one kid who said, ‘my daddy’s going to do you in’. That’s what Boris Johnson actually tried to do last night, he sent his dad to try and do a climate debate for him… It was embarrassing for him but it’s also embarrassing for the country.”
During his appearance on LBC, the Prime Minister was asked how many children he has, putting the spotlight on his personal life after comments from a 1995 Spectator column by Mr
Johnson emerged in which he blamed single mothers for “producing a generation of ill-raised, ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate children”.
One caller to the programme, Ruth from Oldham, told the Prime Minister: “I am a single mother. I don’t appreciate what you have said about single mothers, and by implication my family.
Why are you happy to criticise people like me, when you refuse to discuss your family?”
“These are 25-year-old quotations culled from articles from before even I was in politics,” Mr Johnson said, adding: “I love my children very much but they are not standing at this election and I’m not therefore going to comment.”