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Lords to investigate the broadcast of General Election debates

How can we ensure that the public interest is the primary concern in determining the major questions surrounding the broadcast of General Election debates?

That is the question at the heart of the House of Lords Communications Committee's new inquiry, which will investigate the management and operation of broadcasting General Election debates, both as they are administered now and how the process might look in the future.

Committee Chairman, Lord Inglewood, said:

“On 15 April 2010, the first ever broadcast General Election debate between the UK's three main party leaders was televised on ITV, followed one week later by a second debate on Sky News, and a third, one week after that on the BBC. This precedent has prompted discussion about their impact in 2010 and whether they should take place again in 2015 and beyond.

“Fascinating though this discussion would be, we do not intend to focus our inquiry on the pros and cons of the debates in a constitutional sense. Instead, the focus of our investigation will be on the management and operation of broadcast General Election debates in the UK. With that in mind, we must start at the beginning and look at how they are administered now. Currently, while the three main party leaders have all committed to taking part in broadcast debates in 2015, there is at least some indication that this enthusiasm is conditional on agreeing a number of matters relating to, for example, the debates' timing, format and the political parties permitted to take part. This underlines an important point: these questions and others – who can broadcast them, what ‘rules' the debates should follow and so on – remain a matter of negotiation between the political parties and selected broadcasters.

“So we will start our inquiry with an open mind in order to consider whether the current arrangements for administering the broadcast General Election debates are the most appropriate and, in particular, if the public interest is the primary concern in determining them, and if not how they might be changed.”

Issues the Committee will be considering as part of its inquiry include:

  • How can we ensure that the public interest is the primary concern in determining any administrative matters on topics such as:  who should take part, and on what basis? How many debates should there be and what format would they take? When and where should each of the debates be held, not least taking into account the potential need for different debates at the UK-wide level and at the level of the nations?
  • In what ways does the interaction between existing broadcast regulation, case law, and the potential for judicial review set the parameters for decisions relating to each of these topics?
  • What is the appropriate level of openness and transparency in which these questions should be addressed?
  • Are such matters best left to the broadcasters and political parties to determine? If so, how can it be guaranteed that the public interest plays a decisive role in their negotiations, and – if not - what alternative models are available?

The deadline for submitting written evidence is Monday 20 January 2014.

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