ITV is acting unlawfully excluding Lib Dems from televised debate, court hears

Lawyers for the Liberal Democrats have told the Royal Courts of Justice that ITV is acting unlawfully by excluding their leader Jo Swinson from the first head to head Leaders Debate.

With the programme due to be broadcast live tomorrow evening, the court also heard from representatives of the Scottish National Party.

It too wants a judicial review of ITV’s decision only to include Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn in the first part of its programme.

Guy Vassall-Adams QC, representing the Liberal Democrats, told Court 73 “We submit this decision is unlawful and leaves ITV in breach of its duty to maintain due impartiality and include an appropriate range of significant views”.

Its alleged ITV’s decision excludes “the voice of Remain from the first crucial debate of this election campaign” at a time when “voters are more likely to identify as Leave or Remain than as a supporter of one of the main political parties."

A van with the slogan 'debate her' parked outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London. Credit: PA

The Liberal Democrats argue the magnitude of Brexit makes this an “uniquely important case”, describing Brexit as “an unparalleled constitutional crisis”, the dominant issue of this election and the sole reason it was called by the Prime Minister.

Although ITV is a limited company, as a national public service broadcaster it is also regulated by Ofcom and subject to specific duties under the broadcasting code.

But the court heard that Ofcom can only act after a programme is broadcast, by which time the Liberal Democrats argue “the damage will be done”.

Mr Vassall-Adams QC said the debate should instead be a matter for public law because “as a major public controversy ... it can potentially have an effect on the democratic process."

Lib Dems President Sal Brinton and SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford arrive at the Royal Courts of Justice. Credit: PA

Pointing out that ITV’s first ever leaders debate back in 2010 achieved 10 million viewers, Mr Vassall-Adams QC argued the debates are “very influential with voters” and “play a really important role in the democratic process”.

Asked by Mr Justice Davies if the first debate programme would have to be cancelled if the Liberal Democrats won, Mr Vassall-Adams QC replied

“It is a national news broadcaster. It can move very, very fast. It is not uncommon for TV programmes to make adjustments at the last moment."

  • Johnson v Corbyn: The ITV Debate will be broadcast at 8pm on Tuesday 19 November, with the ITV Election Interviews broadcast at 10pm.