Belfast Telegraph

Greens vow to fight Ofcom ruling

Green leader Natalie Bennett has accused the media regulator of being "entirely out of step" with public opinion by seeking to decline her party the same guaranteed election campaign access to the airwaves as "major" rivals.

Ofcom intends to promote Ukip for the first time to the list of parties which must be given a minimum number of broadcast slots on the back of a surge that saw it top May's European elections, win its first two Commons seats and overtake the Liberal Democrats as the third party in opinion polls.

But it believes the environmentalist party, despite regularly outpolling the Lib Dems and a number of strong by-election showings, does not merit the same treatment because of a relatively poor level of support across the country at the 2010 election.

After a review, it concluded that neither the Greens - nor Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) in Northern Ireland - had "demonstrated significant past electoral support in general elections" to justify inclusion.

Ms Bennett has vowed to fight to overturn the proposal - which is out for consultation - pointing to a dramatic rise in the party's membership and the fact that it intends to field candidates for 75% of all Westminster seats in May, giving 50% more voters a "Green" option than in 2010.

The party indicated that it was seeking urgent talks with Ofcom and would take legal advice as to its options.

Tory MP Zac Goldsmith, a prominent environmentalist, was among critics and said it was a "disgraceful, indefensible decision by Ofcom".

Ms Bennett said: "The Green Party is deeply disappointed by this draft Ofcom ruling, not only for itself, but for the damage it risks doing to British democracy.

"It is notable that the Ofcom draft focuses heavily on 'past electoral support'.

"The media regulator has failed to grasp the fast-moving, fluid state of British politics today, and the fact that voters are seeking out the choice of real change.

"Ofcom should not be making that option harder to find, but ensuring that voters have the chance to hear and judge the full range of political options today.

"It is also important to note how Ofcom is ignoring the strong support for the Green Party in particular sections of the community, particularly the young and students.

"Their engagement in the political process is vital for the future, and they will rightly expect to hear their views represented and explored in the mainstream media."

Parties on the list are guaranteed at least two party election broadcasts (PEBs) on each of the TV and radio channels covered by the system - which does not include the BBC.

Ofcom's Broadcasting Code requires that "due weight must be given to the broadcast coverage of major parties during the election period".

It does not directly affect which party leaders are invited to take part in live TV debates, which is an editorial matter for each broadcaster in direct negotiation with the parties.

But Ofcom rules require broadcasters to ensure all coverage, including debates, complies with rules concerning due impartiality.

The Green Party is already angry at being excluded from the proposed line-up of those set-piece head-to-heads.

At present, only the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems are on the UK-wide list but the dramatic rise in support for other smaller parties and the prospect of another hung parliament has heightened calls for more rights to put their case.

The SNP - which is tipped to seize many seats from Labour and potentially hold the balance of power at Westminster - enjoys similar status on Scottish TV ad radio but now believes it too should be on the "major" list elsewhere.

The consultation is open until February 5 with a final decision due in early March.

Katie Ghose, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said: "We are living in an era when multiple parties command significant amounts of support, and any TV debate format should reflect that fact. If we end up with no debates because politicians and broadcasters cannot agree on a format, then democracy will suffer.

"At their best, TV debates make political issues come alive for the electorate and encourage people to take part in politics. And when it comes to political engagement, we need all the help we can get. Everyone involved should get back round the table and agree on a format which includes as many of Britain's multiple political voices as practically possible."

Ofcom stressed that it took into account the results of a number of elections, including by-elections and those for the European Parliament, local councils and elected mayors, when it made its decision.

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