Factcheck: Did Ofcom say the Greens can't take part in leaders' TV debates?

Published: 9th Jan 2015

In brief

Claim

Ofcom has rules that the Green Party can't take part in the televised leaders' debates.

Conclusion

It's not the regulator's call, but keeping the Greens off the list of 'major parties' means broadcasters are legally entitled to leave them out of the debates.

"Media regulator Ofcom said it believed the Green party was not important enough to be included in the televised general election debates" - Huffington Post, 8 January 2015

An Ofcom consultation on what it considers to be 'major political parties' was published yesterday. It's been reported as a "ruling" on the participation of smaller parties in the televised leaders' debates, affecting in particular the Green Party. But the regulator "has no role in determining" who gets to take part. So what's going on?

Political broadcasting rules

Ofcom come into this in the first place because political debate on television and radio is much more tightly controlled than in the print and online media. Political advertising on TV and radio is banned.

Instead, broadcasters are required to carry 'party political broadcasts', in which the parties have a few minutes to pitch to voters. Ofcom sets rules for these, including the extra broadcasts that can be made during a general election campaign, that apply to the likes of ITV, Channel 5, Five and S4C (but not the BBC or Sky).

All 'major parties' should be offered a minimum of two general election broadcasts, and parties with candidates in one-sixth of constituencies or more (such as the Green Party) should be offered a minimum of one. Broadcasters are free to offer more than this, and to treat the different political parties differently. But in practice, they tend to get together (along with the BBC and Sky) to make sure all parties get consistent treatment on the different channels.

Broadcasters decide who debates

The same is true of the televised leaders' debates. The BBC, Channel 4, ITV and Sky working together have suggested three debates in the run-up to the election:

  • One with David Cameron and Ed Miliband;
  • One with David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg;
  • One with David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage.

This has upset some of the smaller parties, who argue that they should be included as well.

What's this got to do with Ofcom's definition of 'major parties', then?

While the regulator doesn't have a view on TV debates specifically, the Ofcom code that broadcasters have to follow generally—in terms of fairness and impartiality—still applies. And one of these rules says that "Due weight must be given to the coverage of major parties during the election period."

This means that anyone on the list of 'major parties' would be on very solid ground in arguing to the broadcasters, Ofcom, and ultimately the courts that excluding them from the debates would be a breach of this rule.

In 2010, both Plaid Cymru and the SNP complained to Ofcom that it was a breach of the code to exclude them from the debates in that year—both failed in their challenge, partly because they were 'major parties' in Wales/Scotland only, and the debates were about an all-UK election.

Ofcom's provisional decision

What Ofcom said yesterday was that in reviewing the list of 'major parties', its "initial view" is that the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats should remain as 'major parties' in Great Britain (but not Northern Ireland), and that UKIP should be added to the list for England and Wales (but not Scotland).

It considered the claims of the Green Party, and rejected them. The provisional decision was based on past election results and current polling support. You can read a summary of its reasoning here and the full report here.

This isn't the final word; political parties and other "stakeholders" have until 5 February to persuade Ofcom to change its mind.


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