Ponsonby: A political point made in unsurprising legal defeat

Expected ruling from judges on ITV debate, but the SNP and Lib Dems made their point.

Unlike this 2015 ITV debate, there will be no place for the SNP and Lib Dems. <strong>ITV</strong>
Unlike this 2015 ITV debate, there will be no place for the SNP and Lib Dems. ITV

In the end the Liberal Democrats and SNP had no option but to go to court to try and force a re-think of ITVs election showdown between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn.

Perception counts for a lot in an election campaign and the clear perception of the prime-time head-to-head tomorrow is that the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition are the only game in town.

The matter before the court was legal, for Nicola Sturgeon and Jo Swinson, however, it was about a wider debate around fairness. If a hung parliament is the will of the people on election day these two parties could have a key role in determining who forms a government and indeed they could have a decisive say on whether Brexit is delivered or not.

On the surface to the onlooker, they have a case which is simple and as straightforward as straightforward can be. The polls show these parties have significant support in the country and they would argue it is not for a broadcaster to make pejorative judgements through their formatting, which could help sustain the argument that the SNP and Liberal Democrats are marginal to the real fight.

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That argument, which will no doubt resonate with everyone who expresses a preference for the SNP and Liberal Democrats, is not a legal one – it is essentially a political point of view.

The issue before the court is whether the broadcaster is about to breach the code that governs its obligation to conduct itself in a fair and impartial manner. Voters, perhaps, have an overly simplistic idea of the obligation of balance.

The Corbyn-Johnson programme would be a breach of ITV’s obligation if it was their sole election programme. But it is not. The parties not represented between 8pm and 9pm tomorrow night will be represented in a separate programme. It is the broadcast of the second programme that helps ITV discharge their legal obligation.

If the High Court had intervened in this case then judges would effectively be micromanaging election formats pioneered by broadcasters. I never expected them to entertain this and so it has proven.

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The judges have kept out of broadcasting and the SNP and Liberal Democrats have made their point and made it effectively, if alas from their point of view unsuccessfully on a strictly legal basis.


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