General election: Nicola Sturgeon has won past TV debates and now they’ve excluded her – Angus Robertson

There is no good reason for Nicola Sturgeon, as leader of the third biggest party in the Commons, to be prevented from taking part in TV election debates, writes Angus Robertson.

Tuesday, 19th November 2019, 6:00 am
Nicola Sturgeon has been excluded from leaders' debates on ITV and the BBC. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

We might live in the digital age but television really still does matter. This is especially true at election time when coverage from national broadcasters helps shape the public debate, the news agenda and perceptions of political momentum. Televised leaders’ debates which test the different candidates, their policies and their parties are at the heart of elections around the democratic world. It really matters who takes part in the debates and who is excluded. If you are not there you can be seen as less important, less relevant, less credible and your point of view is not heard.

While we may be sick of Brexit dominating everything, it is still the issue of the day. How broadcasters can feature a debate which excludes “Remain” voices is grotesque. It is unrepresentative and unbalanced.

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I know a little bit about television election debates, having taken part in them as Westminster SNP leader, including 2017 when I debated Jeremy Corbyn, Amber Rudd, Tim Farron and others. It was supposed to be the leaders debate that Theresa May took part in. She refused.

Whether you are a fan of Nicola Sturgeon or not, she leads Scotland’s largest party, the third largest in the House of Commons and is most likely to hold the balance of power if Boris Johnson can’t secure a majority.

In previous elections, she has debated the leaders of the UK parties, in fact she was judged to have won the debates. Now the broadcasters have sought to exclude her.

Scots cynical about UK media

What is scheduled to take place is a presidential-style debate between Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn this evening on ITV and on the BBC on 6 December, just after postal votes have been issued.

The head-to-head format takes place despite the UK not having a presidential political system, and not a single opinion poll indicating that Jeremy Corbyn will secure a majority.

Sky News has proposed a debate between Johnson, Corbyn and Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson. She will take part despite having fewer MPs than the SNP. Given the potential for another hung parliament, the arguments for excluding the third biggest parliamentary party from the debate are non-existent.

While other programme styles are being featured, including a Question Time format with party leaders, be under no doubt it is the head-to-head debates that will be hyped and most covered.

With past debate viewing figures between seven and ten million, this will impact on a significant part of the electorate and on the wider media coverage of the campaign.

In other broadcast news, we have learnt that former Scottish Tory Leader Ruth Davidson is set to be paid a significant financial sum to appear on an election night programme. This follows her recent PR-disaster plan to start a conflict-of-interest career in PR.

Politicians aren’t normally paid to take part in political programmes, but clearly the money matters to the Tory MSP for Edinburgh Central. Strange that a network UK broadcaster will pay a politician from a losing party in Scotland, but will exclude the repeated winner from the main debate programme.

With these priorities, no wonder TV viewers are cynical about how Scotland is reported in the UK media.