Colum Eastwood supporters make claims of bias at BBC
Supporters of SDLP leadership challenger Colum Eastwood are accusing the BBC of giving Alasdair McDonnell an unfair advantage by broadcasting his speech live before voting in the election is over.
Mr Eastwood's campaign team last night put him clearly ahead of Dr McDonnell in the leadership battle. They claimed he had secured the support of 170 of the 320 delegates eligible to vote.
"We couldn't be more pleased at how the campaign has gone and the broad base of support that has developed," one activist said. Dr McDonnell's team said they remained confident he would win, although they wouldn't put a figure on it.
But Mr Eastwood's campaigners expressed concern about BBC coverage of the party conference in Armagh and said they had raised the issue with them.
The BBC is due to broadcast Dr McDonnell's speech live at lunchtime which Mr Eastwood's supporters say comes just before the busiest period of voting.
A member of Mr Eastwood's campaign team said he believed the BBC was in breach of the impartiality commitment in its charter. The BBC has strongly denied the allegation.
The Eastwood campaigner said: "There would be outrage if this had happened in the British Labour party leadership election, and it is equally unacceptable here.
"When a speech is being broadcast live, it changes the whole nature of events. It creates a euphoric atmosphere in the room with whooping and clapping from delegates.
"This will all be happening for Alasdair while the polls remain open."
In a statement last night, the BBC said: "Our coverage of the SDLP conference will follow the same format which we have for all our political party conferences.
"The structure and timetable of conference business, including the leadership ballot, are a matter for the SDLP.
"We are satisfied that our programme plans will reflect what's happening at the conference, including the views of the leadership candidates and SDLP party activists."