The BBC is in the firing line after excluding one of the candidates from the platform for its live election hustings in Shetland.
Independent candidate Billy Fox has been refused equal footing with his rivals from the four main political parties at the BBC Radio Shetland hustings, which will be the only broadcast during the election campaign to feature live debate between the Holyrood hopefuls.
Instead Mr Fox has been invited to sit among the audience for the event at the Shetland Museum on Friday 22nd April with nothing more than an assurance that he will “get an opportunity to contribute from the floor”.
Mr Fox said today he was “pretty disgusted” and “humiliated” by his treatment, branding it “very discriminatory”. He also accused the corporation of imposing a “one size fits all” policy more suited to urban areas down south where a string of “lunatic fringe” candidates standing in a ward did make it difficult to offer equal coverage.
But in the case of Shetland he said the policy simply pushed independent local candidates out of the debate, favouring the main parties.
He is currently considering how to react to the snub and may even decide not to take part in the programme under the BBC’s restrictions.
He raised the anomaly with local station boss John Johnston who passed it to BBC Scotland managers in Glasgow. They said only parties which could demonstrate “previous substantial electoral support” in a constituency could sit on such a programme’s platform.
Mr Fox said he had not been given any assurance, unofficial or otherwise, that he would be brought into the debate at regular points. He said his absence from the panel meant he would be at a disadvantage and also with his back to the audience in the museum.
“I’ve raised my concerns. I’ve had an official reply saying that the policy stands. I’m deliberating at the moment what course of action I’m going to take. I don’t think it’s very democratic. It’s quite humiliating.”
He has also been in touch with the independent candidate in Orkney who is facing the same discrimination in BBC Radio Orkney’s live hustings on 28th April. James Stockan, who is the vice-convener of Orkney Islands Council, has already said his own exclusion is “a great injustice”.
The pair’s exclusion is all the more controversial given that both are not just local but also prominent in political debate in their respective communities whereas some of the main parties’ candidates have never been heard of before and have scarcely set foot in the islands.
In the UK general election last year the UKIP candidate Robert Smith endured the same exclusion from the panel but took part in the hustings and got at least some airtime for his views.
However, he was not a serious contender for the Orkney and Shetland seat whereas Mr Fox is expected to gain a considerably larger share of the vote than the 6.3 percent polled by UKIP.
Mr Fox said: “There are two credible [independent] candidates standing, both in Orkney and in Shetland, and it does seem very unfair that they’re not going to get a fair crack of the whip because of BBC blanket policy nationwide.”
The BBC’s position on independent candidates contrasts with that of the organisers of the other two hustings being held in Shetland. All five candidates have been offered an equal chance to participate at the Althing in Tingwall on Saturday evening and in front of pupils at the Brae High School earlier on the day that the radio event is recorded.
In a statement the BBC said it tried to ensure its election coverage was fair and impartial: “We take into account a number of factors, including previous electoral support at similar elections, when deciding on our panels for any election debates we broadcast.
“In this instance the four main parties will be represented on the main panel but we have also invited the independent candidate to attend in the audience, which will allow him to participate in the debate.”
The BBC Radio Shetland hustings programme, chaired by Mark Inchley from the station, will be edited and broadcast on Monday 25th April, three days after the event.
Meanwhile, Mr Fox has welcomed a table top exercise simulating an oil well blowout to the west of Shetland which is to be held next month. However, he said such an exercise was no substitute for ensuring oil companies had the right systems in place to prevent such a blowout in the first place.
Liberal Democrat candidate Tavish Scott chose to focus on the SNP government’s decision to exclude businesses from the air discount scheme (ADS), which he said he would reverse.