The extended row over the proposed TV election debates has reached a deadlock. David Cameron has said he will take part in just one, but the broadcasters (supported by Tory opponents) are committed to running three. What will break this impasse? In my view, commercial factors will force the UK’s broadcasters to give up their threat to use an empty chair for an absent Cameron in those debates he has said he will not attend.
For the BBC, the obvious risk is over Royal Charter renewal and the structure of the licence fee. The bulk of the Conservative party and press already think the Corporation is a hotbed of metropolitan, Oxbridge lefties who hate Tories. Assume the Conservatives form the next government. In a bid to quell restive backbenchers in the run-up to a divisive and challenging EU referendum in 2017, the government may throw them a BBC bone.
Less commented on, though, is the risk for the commercial broadcasters.
The government has just launched a review into whether the main commercial channels (ITV, Channel 4 and Five) can charge pay-TV operators for carriage of their channels. This may be a huge and very profitable source of new revenues for the broadcasters and a major cost for operators such as Sky.
If the broadcasters empty-chair Cameron, it could put their positions in the debate over this issue at risk. The Tories would, of course, claim that whatever decision is taken was impartial. But Archie Norman, ITV’s chairman and an ex-Conservative Party chairman, has sufficient political nous to know the risks.
Channel 4’s bosses, meanwhile, would run the extra risk of fuelling what they would see as an unwelcome privatisation debate.
But the broadcasters are standing together on this issue, no? Well, the platforms tend not to sacrifice their own interests for the greater good (ITV chief executive Adam Crozier recently blamed its weak performance in audience share partly on the BBC. Separately, will ITV take advantage of the BBC’s discomfort over Jeremy Clarkson and make him an offer he cannot refuse?). There is too much temptation for one broadcaster to break ranks.
There will be three other considerations for the broadcasters.
First, the Tories look to be edging into a sustained lead (ahead by two points with YouGov this week, for example, and other pollsters like ICM and Lord Ashcroft are also showing Conservative leads) as Labour’s Scottish problem appears to be worsening and Ukip poses an increasing threat to its Northern seats. Betting on the Conservatives winning the most seats has tightened considerably over the last few days.
Second, no one really seems to care about the debates. It is seen as a typical media elite issue that “luvvies” and political hacks relish yet no one in the real world gives a damn about. Lord Ashcroft’s findings seem to support this, and even those who thought Cameron was ducking the debates did not necessarily think he was wrong for doing so. Judging from the social media reaction, far more people care about Clarkson’s suspension.
Third, the broadcasters run the risk of being perceived as players in, rather than impartial commentators on, the election. Lord Grade (who has chaired Channel 4, the BBC and ITV) stated “it was not for the broadcasters to threaten the Prime Minister”. While Labour was quick to attack Lord Grade’s view (he is a Conservative peer), it may resonate more with the public than the politicians and broadcasters think.
The broadcasters will sound tough for a few days to save face and then back down, blaming the PM and/or voter apathy on the issue. One-nil to Cameron.