Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Revealed (maybe) : the broadcasters' fallback position on the leaders' debates

A very interesting exchange I've just had on Political Betting - a poster called 'The Screaming Eagles' claims to have a source in Sky who has told him of the basis for the broadcasters' confidence that their proposals for a selective line-up of three in the forthcoming leaders' debates is law-proof. But, intriguingly, when pushed further the poster conceded that the broadcasters have a fallback position to cover the possibility that the SNP or Plaid Cymru might actually win a legal case -

"the debates will only air in England.

However the broadcasters will argue, that those with Sky in Scotland will be able to watch the debates on channel 974 (BBC1 London)

And with the freeview, BBC iplayer, you tube, and sky player, it will be impracticable to enforce a ban in Scotland."

In other words, another wheeze (to follow on from the 'Prime Ministerial Debate' rebranding) to artificially circumvent the inconvenient existence of a fourth major party in Scotland. What's extraordinary about this one, though, is that it tacitly acknowledges that the coverage will be grossly unbalanced, but essentially says to the court "nothing much you can do about it, gov, so you might as well let us get on with it". Now, I'm not a legal expert, but I'd have thought if such a stunt was pulled it would be perfectly open to the SNP's lawyers to simply say to the courts that they're reasonable people, and as such they would naturally only expect any block on a Scottish broadcast to be enforced to a practicable - and most certainly not an impracticable - degree. The percentage of Scots who would bother to seek out the debates by these theoretical exotic alternative methods would be fairly small, and thus the requirement for fair and balanced coverage between the four main parties in Scotland would essentially have been met. Everybody happy.


  1. "And with the freeview, BBC iplayer, you tube, and sky player, it will be impracticable to enforce a ban in Scotland."

    Actually it's not impracticable at all.

    The judge just interdicts any leaders' debate not containing the SNP from being broadcast in Scotland and any discussion or excerpts from these debates broadcast after the fact.

    That means that the BBC, ITV and Sky have to shut off all terrestrial transmitters which reach Scotland and all satellite channels which will broadcast the debate into Scotland whatever regional channel they are assigned to and all internet channels or news items which contain excerpts from the debates.

    It's very easy for the judge to do. How the broadcasters cope with the technical problems of not breaking the interdict is up to them.

    The idea that the judge can't stop broadcasts which break the impartiality requirements of the Communications Act 2003 because it will cause the broadcasters great pain has the definite air of whistling into the wind about it.

  2. If a judge rules that these broadcasts must not be shown in Scotland because they break the law over electoral rules it is the broadcasters responsibility to ensure that requirement is met.