Deal struck for British election TV debates
British broadcasters on Saturday said party leaders have signed up to a schedule of televised debates ahead of the May 7 general election, following weeks of tense wrangling.
But rather than stop the verbal warfare and jockeying for position, the announcement simply triggered a bitter round of recriminations.
The opposition Labour party leader Ed Miliband accused Prime Minister David Cameron of "running scared", while the eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP) branded the whole process "an utter farce".
"The announcement follows conversations with all the parties," the broadcasters said in a joint statement.
The 2010 campaign saw televised election debates for the first time in Britain, featuring the three main party leaders in three shows.
Conservative Prime Minister Cameron, Labour leader Miliband and Deputy PM Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, have been trading barbs over the potential format this time round, with smaller party leaders also chipping in.
The main television news broadcasters have come up with a range of different formats.
The programmes start on March 26 when Channel 4 and Sky News will host a 90-minute live question and answer session featuring separate interviews with Cameron and Miliband.
A studio audience will also put questions directly to them but they will not debate with each other.
ITV will host a live, two-hour debate with seven party leaders on April 2.
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg will be joined by the UKIP's Nigel Farage, Natalie Bennett from the Greens, the Scottish National Party's Nicola Sturgeon, who is also Scotland's first minister, and Welsh nationalist leader Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru.
The BBC will stage an opposition leaders' debate on April 16, featuring Miliband, Farage, Sturgeon, Bennett and Wood.
The corporation will also ensure "fair representation" of the government parties (Conservative and Lib Dem) and Northern Irish parties, the statement said.
Finally on April 30, the BBC will host a programme with Cameron, Miliband and Clegg answering questions from a studio audience.
- 'Cowardice' -
A Conservative source said: "In all these formats, we are confident the choice between competence and chaos will be clear."
After the experience of 2010, Cameron did not want any debates during the formal election period this time round, feeling they eclipsed the actual campaign and were about "just delivering the soundbite down the camera, rather than a proper debate."
Labour accused Cameron of "cowardice" for declining to debate with Miliband head to head, saying they therefore signed up "with great reluctance".
They accused broadcasters of backing down on replacing the PM with an empty chair.
Miliband said: "David Cameron is now in the ridiculous position where he'll go to the same studio as me... but he won't debate me head-to-head as he's running scared."
A Liberal Democrat spokesman said they had "strong objections to being excluded" from any debate.
"But we think that the politicians and broadcasters have ducked and dived on this long enough and just need to get on with it... however flawed the format."
UKIP leader Farage called the set-up "an utter farce", saying the broadcasters should be "ashamed" by the "shoddy" formula.
"It's a smack in the face of democracy and I am appalled," he said.
© 2015 AFP