Channel 4 and Sky have been accused of bowing to pressure from the Conservative party after the format of a pre-General Election programme was changed.
The broadcasters revealed on Saturday (21 March) that prime minister David Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband will not debate head-to-head as originally planned for the programme, set to air 26 March. Instead they will be interviewed separately before answering questions from the studio audience.
Speaking to the Guardian, a Labour Party spokesman said Channel 4 and Sky had backed down on a pledge to “empty chair” Cameron.
“After weeks of pressure from the Conservative party, Channel 4 and Sky have indicated to us that they are unwilling to stick to their commitment of 6 March to proceed with the head-to-head debate programme if David Cameron refused to take part,” he said.
He added that it was with "great reluctance" the party had agreed to a change in the format of the programme.
"David Cameron and Ed Miliband will now attend the same programme and take the same questions from the same audience. But due to the cowardice of David Cameron the two leaders will not be on stage at the same time to debate each other," he added.
It was also confirmed on Saturday that in a special edition of Question Time on BBC1, Cameron, Miliband and Liberal Democrat’s Nick Clegg not debate directly but answer questions posed by the studio audience.
Ukip leader Nigel Farage described the situation as an “utter farce” and that the broadcasters should be “ashamed”.
“They’ve kowtowed to manipulation from Downing Street and are now offering a shoddy selection of alternatives that are no different from typical election coverage already taking place. There are no longer what anyone could sensibly call leaders’ debates,” he said.
“The entire plan has been concocted by the broadcasters in collaboration with the Conservatives. The general public ... are being fobbed off with a total rehash that plays into the hands of one man and one party only. It’s a smack in the face of democracy and I am appalled.”
A joint statement from broadcasters said on Saturday said: “We’re delighted that there will be a debate with all the party leaders during the election campaign.
“We’re very pleased to be able to offer viewers an extensive range of programmes across the four channels, featuring the party leaders interacting directly with voters during the campaign.”