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ITV leaders’ debate will exclude views of Remain voters, High Court hears

An advertising van showing Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson, outside the Royal Courts of Justice, London (Isabel Infantes/PA)
An advertising van showing Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson, outside the Royal Courts of Justice, London (Isabel Infantes/PA)

ITV will exclude the views of voters who want to remain in the EU by leaving the Liberal Democrat and SNP leaders out of its televised election debate, the High Court has heard.

A head-to-head debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn is due to air on Tuesday night, which will exclude any other party leaders.

The Lib Dems and the SNP are contesting the broadcaster’s decision to leave their party leaders out of the debate at a court hearing in London.

ITV lawyers told the court the debate – and an interview with Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson due to follow it – will be pulled from its schedule altogether if the two judges hearing the case find ITV has breached its duties under the Broadcasting Code.

Lawyers for the Lib Dems argued that Brexit is the “dominant” issue in next months’ general election and that “the voice of Remain has been excluded” by ITV’s failure to include the party’s leader Jo Swinson in the main debate.

General Election 2019
Democrat President Sal Brinton and SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford arrive at the High Court (Isabel Infantes/PA)

Guy Vassall-Adams QC said the broadcaster’s decision not to include the Lib Dems was unlawful because it “breaches the duty of impartiality and the requirement to give due weight to a wide range of significant views”.

He told the court: “The dominant issue of this election campaign is Brexit, which is on any view a matter of major political controversy and current public policy.

“In the first national TV debate of the campaign it is essential that a wide, balanced range of views on Brexit is represented.

“But the only invitees are supporters of Leave, with the Conservatives advocating leave and Labour proposing to negotiate its own deal to leave.

“The views of millions of Remain-supporting voters, regardless of party affiliation, will not be represented in the debate.

“This has serious consequences for the fairness of the democratic process of which leaders’ debates, a form of hustings, form a significant part.”

He also said there was evidence that the televised debates affect people’s voting intention, adding: “This is a TV debate on a free-to-air broadcaster that will go to every home in the country.

“It will attract millions of viewers… such live TV debates are very influential with voters.”

Lawyers for the SNP said the party represents a range of views which would not be represented in a debate between Labour and the Conservatives, including on Brexit and Scottish independence.

Philip Coppel QC said: “Prior to 2010 it may have been the case that a debate between the Labour and the Conservative leaders would cover the full range of significant views in a general election.

“That was, arguably, a time when those parties encompassed the spectrum of mainstream political opinion.

“That is no longer the case. In the current, pluralistic political landscape it is simply not possible for a debate which only includes two parties to include ‘all significant views’.”

General Election 2019 timetable
(PA Graphics)

ITV lawyers contend its decision is not capable of challenge in the courts and that, in any event, there is no basis for alleging any unlawful conduct on its part.

Lib Dem representatives lodged papers at the court in London last week and said it was “vital for our democracy” to have both sides of the Brexit debate included in TV debates during the election campaign.

Speaking ahead of the hearing, the SNP’s leader in Westminster, Ian Blackford, said: “This challenge is not just about the SNP, it’s about fairness for every voter and viewer across the country who have a right to see the real choice at this election on that debate stage.

“By excluding key parties from the debate, viewers are being deprived of the opportunity to make their own decisions, and voters in Scotland are not seeing their voting patterns reflected at all.”

Sky News has proposed a November 28 date for its debate, while the BBC has confirmed it will host two debates, on November 29 and December 6, in addition to a series of Question Time specials.

Lord Justice Davis and Mr Justice Warby indicated that they will give a decision after 4pm on Monday.

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