It’s entirely understandable why Vote Leave are annoyed at ITV’s decision to book a Farage-versus-Cameron debate on the EU referendum. In a General Election there are parties to deal with, but a referendum is a cross-party exercise - the whole point of the Electoral Commission’s designation process was to pick an official Leave campaign, who then act as the official representative of that side of the argument in campaigning, in designing the official mailshot, in choosing the campaign broadcasts and, yes, in putting people up for TV debates.
Readers may think Farage the ideal person to do a referendum debate, given his expertise and prominence on the topic, or they may not, given the potential deterrent effect on floating voters, but that should be the decision of the official Leave campaign who have been given the responsibility of making the case. It should not be the sole decision of ITV, whose priority is for ratings rather than fair representation, and it should certainly not be the decision of Downing Street, whose priority is to pick an opponent who they believe Cameron can most easily beat. In the Scottish referendum, the broadcasters rightly dealt with the official campaigns on each side to arrange debates – that precedent ought to be followed here.
Consider if a broadcaster behaved this way at a General Election – what would CCHQ say if ITV had booked Boris instead of Cameron to debate Miliband last year, and what would Farage’s reaction be if ITV had put Carswell up against the Prime Minister instead of him? For that matter, I imagine ITV themselves would be quite aggrieved if the Government announced the BBC were to represent them in talks on the future of broadcasting.
ITV’s behaviour on this has been bizarre, to say the least. My understanding is that yesterday they agreed to hold initial talks with Vote Leave, to take place later this week, only hours before announcing they had already made their decision. Vote Leave’s statement from last night suggests they are suspicious that Robert Peston’s friendship with prominent pro-EU campaigners like Roland Rudd influenced that switch – I think it more likely they were offered the opportunity, presumably by Downing Street, for a high-ratings clash with Farage and just took it, regardless of their responsibilities to represent the official campaign or the possibility that they were being played for political advantage. Either way, it is a neither honourable nor fair way to behave on an issue of huge national importance.
I suspect even Vote Leave themselves would concede that the part of last night’s statement which threatened “consequences” for the broadcaster was ill-judged. However, it’s easy to see why they are annoyed about double-dealing on such a crucial event. In the meantime, they’re talking to ITV in the hope of a more reasonable solution while pressing the BBC to ensure that they, at least, do the right thing.