Plans for a primetime TV Brexit debate to sell Theresa May’s deal to the public on the eve of the crucial parliamentary “meaningful vote” are in crisis after a week of infighting between broadcasters and the major parties over how it should be run.
Several sources close to the negotiations, including the deputy leader of the SNP, accused the BBC of creating the impression it is acting on behalf of Downing Street by proposing a format that favours Theresa May’s deal over any of the alternatives.
BuzzFeed News understands that the BBC’s original pitch to host the Brexit debate, delivered to Number 10 on Monday, suggested an hourlong BBC One show at 9 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 6, with the prime minister and leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn accompanied by a 20-strong panel.
The proposed panel would have consisted of members of the public, figures from public life, and politicians who have expressed different views on the government’s Brexit deal.
Ten members of the panel would have been in favour of the deal, while the other ten would have opposed it and argued for alternatives, ranging from a no-deal Brexit to single-market membership to a second referendum.
It would have included MPs from other parties with differing positions, including the Scottish National Party.
Two days later, on Wednesday, the BBC agreed to halve the size of the panel and move the debate to Sunday, Dec. 9.
A source close to the talks said the BBC told one of the parties that the panel format would prevent the broadcaster from facing a legal challenge for failing to include other voices.
A Downing Street source told BuzzFeed News they thought the panel proposal was “completely balanced” and ensured the debate would be focused on the substance of the PM’s deal. But it has not been so favourably received by the other parties and broadcasters.
One participant in the negotiations noted that after the moderator’s introduction, May and Corbyn’s opening and closing statements, and the panel’s interventions, there would only be 12 minutes left for actual debate between the two party leaders. “This would not be particularly instructive,” the source said.
Another said the format was advantageous to May because it gave her deal five supporters, or “outriders”, on the panel but only allowed one spokesperson for each of the alternative positions.
The source also said it would allow the PM to present her deal as preferable to a chaotic argument between opposition panel members. They noted May would benefit from a situation similar to the ITV debate during the 2015 general election in which David Cameron was able to paint his rivals as squabbling among themselves.
Several sources familiar with the negotiations complained to BuzzFeed News of the close relationship between the BBC and the Downing Street director of communications Robbie Gibb, who was the head of the BBC’s political programming before accepting a job at Number 10.
On Friday, SNP deputy leader Keith Brown said in a letter to the BBC’s director general Tony Hall that the debate negotiations left the “clear impression that you are acting on behalf of the Prime Minister’s office”.
He added: “Having made contact with the BBC ourselves, the SNP has been told that we cannot be told the details of the proposed programme, to which we are apparently to be invited to participate in some fashion, until other potential contributors — to whom the outline of the programme has been ‘pitched’ — have confirmed their position.
“Such actions on the part of the BBC are clearly not in line with the obligation to act fairly and leave the Corporation open to the clear impression that you are acting on behalf of the Prime Minister’s office, a position I am sure the BBC would not wish to be in.”
A BBC spokesperson said: “We have received the letter which we will answer in due course, but we have not set out any debate format at this stage.”
Another source claimed the BBC pitch was tailored to Number 10’s interests: “Sky, ITV and C4 were all invited in, but very last minute. I suspect Downing Street told the BBC what the format should be for them to pitch it!”
BuzzFeed News understands that conversations between Gibb and senior BBC executives about a Brexit TV event first took place several weeks ago.
Number 10’s original preference, according to a Whitehall source, was for a Question Time–style Q&A with May and David Dimbleby, but no Corbyn. This plan appeared in a leaked version of the Downing Street communications grid earlier this month. It was the BBC that subsequently suggested the debate.
Labour prefers ITV’s debate proposal. The ITV pitch is for a straightforward head-to-head debate with May, Corbyn, and a moderator on Sunday, Dec. 9. Including ad breaks, this would allow for around half an hour of debate, which Labour sees as preferable to the BBC’s plan.
There was fury in Corbyn’s team at two tweets sent by BBC accounts on Thursday. After Downing Street spinners briefed journalists that the broadcaster had won the race to host the debate — without any agreement from Labour — the BBC News Press Team account tweeted that they “hope to hear soon from the Labour party”. The BBC Politics account tweeted then that Labour’s representative in the debate was “tbc”.
This was seen by Corbyn’s aides as an attempt by the BBC and Number 10 to bounce them into a debate that favoured May. “It did cause quite some upset,” a Labour source said, confirming the party had made its feelings known to the BBC. One member of Leader’s Office wryly commented that Corbyn gave a speech in August saying that the BBC should be freed from government control.
Richard Sambrook, former director of BBC News and now a professor of journalism at Cardiff University, said none of the formats proposed so far are ideal and the backroom negotiations could run for another week.
“Negotiations for political TV debates are always difficult and protracted, with all parties seeking advantage from the format and distrusting other parties or the broadcasters,” Sambrook said. “The broadcasters need to get it agreed as swiftly as possible to ensure a strong, well-developed production — but negotiations could run for another week.
“None of these format options is ideal — there’s a tension between representing the many different and complex positions on Brexit and a clean, accessible debate.
“In addition — other than broadly seeking public support and informing them — without a public vote, the purpose is unclear. Of course, for the broadcasters the lure of having the political leaders live on the biggest issue for a generation is irresistible.”
A Number 10 source insisted the government has always been “thinking creatively” about various types of formats and looked at many different options. The source said May will also be appearing on ITV’s This Morning next week.
A Labour source told BuzzFeed News they wanted a debate to take place but would not be forced into accepting unreasonable terms.
Mark Di Stefano is a media and politics correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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Alex Wickham is a senior reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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