A public consultation is to be held by the BBC on the format of its planned television debates in the run-up to the general election next May.
The announcement came after Scotland’s First Minister-in-waiting Nicola Sturgeon called on broadcasters to reconsider plans that exclude the SNP from taking part in the debates.
She had demanded broadcasters think again and had said “it would be a failure in your duty of impartiality” if the debates went ahead as presently planned.
A BBC spokesman yesterday said it made “editorial judgments about coverage during the general election campaign informed by evidence of past and current electoral support”.
But he revealed that the BBC Trust would be launching a public consultation on the “relevant guidelines” this week – with the SNP predicting there would be “substantial backing” for its inclusion.
The spokesman said: “Opinion polls are part of that evidence whereby we take account of consistent and robust trends across different polls over time, rather than reacting to individual polls.
“We have also said we will continue to look at any further evidence of changes in electoral support as we get closer to the election campaign.”
Current plans announced by the BBC, ITV, Sky and Channel 4 will see three debates staged: one is to feature UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, Labour leader Ed Miliband and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg. Another will be a head-to-head debate between Cameron and Miliband. A third will feature only Cameron, Miliband and Clegg.
The Green Party and Plaid Cymru have also criticised the proposals for failing to give them a place at the table.
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The SNP is now the third-largest party in the UK with more than 83,000 members and a poll last week found that 52 per cent of Scots would vote for the SNP if there were a Westminster election tomorrow, suggesting the party could secure 54 Scottish seats in the Commons, with Labour reduced from 40 to four.
SNP MSP Stewart Maxwell said: “With the SNP now the third-largest party in the UK by some considerable distance and two polls showing a surge in support, it would be utterly unacceptable for the broadcasters to exclude the SNP from coming TV debates.
“The announcement that the BBC Trust is to launch a public consultation on this issue is a welcome one.
“It will give people the opportunity to make their views known to the BBC and I have no doubt that there will be extensive backing for including the SNP in these debates.
“Broadcasters have a duty to be impartial in their election coverage and it would be a gross failure in those democratic duties if the SNP were excluded.”
When the TV debate plans were announced last month, BBC Scotland said it was proposing a debate involving the leaders of the SNP, Scottish Labour, Scottish Conservatives and the Scottish Liberal Democrats.
Addressing a rally of SNP members in Dumfries on Friday, Sturgeon – set to become SNP leader and First Minister this month – said the polls “put beyond any doubt” that excluding the SNP from the debates was “unacceptable”.
She also told the broadcasters: “I want to send a direct message to the BBC, ITV, Sky and Channel 4: to exclude not just the SNP but also the Greens and Plaid Cymru would be to wilfully ignore the reality of the political landscape that exists, not just in Scotland but across the UK.”
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