The BBC needs a clear policy to ensure impartial televised debates

UEA student Adam Kinghorn argues that the BBC’s ad hoc approach in deciding which political parties should be invited to their televised general election debates needs reforming into a clear set of criteria so that political parties and viewers alike know what is required.

The BBC is considered to be the most impartial news channel in the eyes of the public. The original plans for the 2015 General Election televised leaders debates were released but the Green Party threatened legal action as they did not believe that the BBC were upholding their policy of being impartial when broadcasting. Since then the BBC have revised their proposal and the up to date version includes the Greens along with the SNP and Plaid Cymru. The DUP have demanded to be included on the grounds they have more seats in Parliament than any of the other parties recently invited. The importance of televised general election debates has increased over recent years and the number of parties wishing to take part in the televised general election debates is increasing. It would be reasonable to suggest that the BBC should have a set criterion so that political parties and viewers alike understand what is needed to join a televised debate.

Recommended Criteria

1. Televised debates should be limited to five participants

In order for the BBC to be seen to be remaining impartial, a televised debate should include the political parties that people want to hear from, even if this means a debate with more than three candidates. The debate should contain up to but not over five potential leaders as the BBC should aim at keeping their programmes simple enough for a large audience to follow. Question Time host David Dimbleby has shown that it is possible to lead a panel of five guests whilst retaining the audience’s attention. This set up could be replicated for a televised general election debate.

2. Political parties that received 20% or more of the vote from the previous General Election should automatically get a slot

Political parties that receive more than 20% of the vote are the major parties in a first-past-the-post electoral system. These are the parties that the majority of viewers will be looking to hear from in the televised debates. It can be seen that some parties can lose a large proportion of their support in one term as being the case with the Liberal Democrats between 2010 and 2014. These political parties should be able explain why they believe they have lost a considerable amount of support if they have declined in the public eye.

3. Political parties should field candidates in a majority of the constituencies

The DUP and Sinn Fein have complained that if the criteria is to receive a seat in Parliament in order to be considered for the leader’s debates then they should be allowed a slot as currently obtain 11 seats between them. It would be inappropriate to have political parties on a national televised debate across the whole of the United Kingdom if two or three of the five slots were taken by parties who only field candidates in one country. Participants must field candidates in a majority of constituencies, which is 324, as to ensure the debates are accessible for the majority of viewers.

4. Participants have to submit a petition 6 weeks after the 1st debate is announced with 2% of the turnout figure from the previous election as the required number of signatures

In order to make sure that the political parties on the televised debates are those that the public want to hear and deliberate over on the BBC, the parties should submit a petition 6 weeks after the 1st debate is announced. This petition should have 2% of the turnout figure from the previous election as the required number of signatures as to ensure that a significant number of people in the United Kingdom wish to hear that political party debate amongst the others.


It is clear that the invitation of UKIP, the Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru has raised the issue of which political parties should be included in a national televised debate, especially as Ofcom states that the main political parties of the United Kingdom are the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Questions have been asked of the BBC as to why other parties have been excluded and no coherent reasons have been given. This is the main justification as to why it would be recommendable to have criteria that political parties have to meet if they wish to participate.

If the BBC were to implement these criteria for the next General Election televised leader’s debates then political parties and viewers alike would know what is expected to attain a slot. Political parties could not threaten legal action as there would be a policy the BBC could refer to in order the show said political party what they would have to do to be a part of the debates.

The criteria would also ensure that the BBC is conducting itself according to its guidelines on broadcasting during the General Election period including remaining impartial as its viewers deem it to be.

Adam Kinghorn is a third year undergraduate student at the University of East Anglia, who studied the module The Politics of Elections run by Toby James.

Image credit: Telegraph labeled for re-use

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