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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
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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.

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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.

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

Conservative sources 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”.

But Education Secretary Gavin Williamson later said Channel 4 had an “important role” to play in British broadcasting and there was “no suggestion at all” this was now under threat.

“The government has no plans in terms of changing what Channel 4 does,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today.

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.

With the Conservatives having the slowest timetable of the main parties currently in Parliament for virtually eliminating greenhouse gas emissions, environmentalists say Mr Gove’s arrival at the Channel 4 debate as Boris Johnson’s substitute was a diversion.

The five party leaders who were present diverged on how quickly the UK could meet its aim of hitting the net zero carbon target.

The Conservatives say they will do it by 2050 – but also plan to spend £28bn on road-building, which experts say will increase emissions.

The Lib Dems and SNP want a 2045 deadline. The Greens and Plaid Cymru argue it must happen by 2030.

Jeremy Corbyn said the majority of emissions must be gone by 2030 – but Labour haven’t set a firm end date on reaching the zero target.

All the leaders in the debate promised a green industrial revolution and joined in a bidding war over who would plant most trees.

Mr Corbyn came under fire for dodging a question on whether he would support new nuclear power stations.

The Greens and Lib Dems said they would tax frequent fliers, but other speakers slid away from answering that thorny question.

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 media scrutiny.

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has accused Mr Johnson of “running scared”, saying it was a “matter of honour” that he subjected himself to the fullest possible questioning.

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.

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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”.

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.

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

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 – but no interview with the prime minister has been agreed as yet.

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.

The Conservatives said the prime minister had agreed to be interviewed by the BBC’s Andrew Marr on Sunday. Mr Corbyn and Ms Swinson have already appeared on that show during the election campaign.

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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