General election 2019: Row over Boris Johnson debate ’empty chair’

Jo Swinson, Nicola Sturgeon, Adam Price, Jeremy Corbyn and Sian Berry, stand next to ice sculptures representing the Brexit Party and Conservative Party at ITN Studios in Holborn on November 28, 2019 in London, England.Image copyright Getty Images

The Conservative Party is embroiled in a row with Channel 4 over the broadcaster’s decision to “empty chair” Boris Johnson during its election debate on climate change last night.

Minister Michael Gove offered to take his place, but the broadcaster said the invitation was for leaders only.

The party wrote to Ofcom saying placing an ice sculpture on the PM’s podium was a “provocative partisan stunt”.

Labour has accused Mr Johnson of “hiding from scrutiny”.

Urging the regulator to take action against Channel 4, the Conservative Party accused the broadcaster of breaking its duty to be impartial and citing other alleged examples of bias.

In a letter to Ofcom, the party says Channel 4 News staged a “provocative partisan stunt, which would itself constitute making a political opinion in its own right” by substituting the PM with an ice sculpture.

Conservative sources also briefed journalists at BuzzFeed News and the Telegraph that “if we are re-elected we will have to review Channel 4’s Public Services Broadcasting obligations”.

Channel 4’s public service broadcasting licence is up for renewal in 2024.

Former Conservative culture minister Ed Vaizey – who is not standing for re-election as an MP – said it was “perfectly legitimate” for the party to complain to the regulator about their lack of representation in the debate.

But he said it was not “sensible” for political parties to “threaten” broadcasters and he would be “disappointed” if the Conservatives took the matter any further after the election.

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Media captionThe BBC’s Jessica Parker explains what happened in election campaigning on Thursday

Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson said the move was “deeply concerning” and urged the regulator to “call out this meddling”.

In a letter to Ofcom, he added: “Boris Johnson has banned the Daily Mirror from its battle bus, ducked the Andrew Neil interview and now attempted to bully Channel 4.”

Mr Gove, a former environment secretary, said he was disappointed not to be allowed to take part in the climate debate, adding: “We have a record we are proud of and we want to defend.”

Channel 4 also replaced Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage with ice in the hour-long programme.

Channel 4 News editor Ben de Pear said: “These two ice sculptures represent the emergency on planet earth, not in any human form but are a visual metaphor for the Conservative and Brexit parties after their leaders declined our repeated invitations to attend tonight’s vital climate debate.”

The Emergency On Planet Earth debate featured Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson, Scottish First Minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, Plaid Cymru’s leader Adam Price and Green co-leader Sian Berry.

“Empty chairing” is where a debate or interview is conducted without one of its participants.

‘Hiding from scrutiny’

Meanwhile, Labour has published 60 questions it wants Boris Johnson to answer, including on sexism, the NHS, Brexit and his ministers.

The party has accused Mr Johnson of “hiding from scrutiny” and its questions include: “Are you scared of Andrew Neil?”

On Thursday, Mr Johnson refused to say whether he would agree to an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Neil, who has already grilled Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon, and is planning to interview other party leaders.

When asked several times by the BBC’s Ben Wright if he would take part, Boris Johnson would not confirm it, saying he would have “all sorts of interviews with all sorts of people”.

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Media captionWatch: Boris Johnson refuses to commit to Andrew Neil interview

Mr Johnson – who was interviewed by Mr Neil during the Conservative leadership election in July – confirmed negotiations were still taking place, but he said it was “not my job” to make the final decision.

He added: “Other people than me are responsible for those discussions and negotiations, and I do not want to pre-empt what they may decide.”

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn took part in 30-minute interviews with Mr Neil earlier this week.

The BBC’s interview with Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson is set to air on 4 December and another with Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage will be shown on 5 December.

The BBC said it was “in ongoing discussions” with No 10, but said they had not “yet been able to fix a date” for the sit-down discussion between presenter Mr Neil and the PM.

Meanwhile, a BBC seven-way election debate takes place later featuring senior figures from the Conservatives, Labour, the Brexit Party, the Green Party, as well as the leaders of Plaid Cymru, the SNP, and Lib Dems.

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