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Viewers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will not be able to watch the TV debate on Scottish independence live on television tonight, after host station STV declined the BBC’s request to show the programme across the UK.
STV, which is Scotland’s equivalent of ITV, last month secured a deal to host Tuesday’s debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling, the most keenly awaited moment of the referendum debate so far.
It offered ITV the rights to screen the two-hour programme across the UK, but the latter opted to maintain its usual evening schedule of Love Your Garden, a horticultural show with Alan Titchmarsh, and Kids Behind Bars, a US documentary.
Sky News had also offered to show the debate live and were refused. Like the BBC, Sky is still in discussions over hosting a debate before polling day.
The BBC had offered to carry STV’s show on its rolling news channel, but STV declined. “It’s very much an STV debate, which STV secured,” said a spokesperson.
Instead, viewers from around the world will be able to follow the debate live online via STV’s website, or to watch nine minutes of highlights on BBC News Channel before 10pm.
Rory Stewart, the chairman of the defence select committee and MP for the English constituency of Penrith and the Border, was furious about the decision not to show the debate in England. “I have had to come up to Scotland to watch the debate – it’s completely insane,” he told the Financial Times.
“One of the most dangerous parts of the debate is this idea that what happens to Scotland doesn’t affect the rest of the UK. The broadcasters are getting very nervous about this sort of thing, but it is self-fulfilling.”
BBC Parliament, available on Freeview, will run the debate in full a day later, on Wednesday, at 7pm.
The BBC is also in negotiations with the Yes and No campaigns about organising its own debate in the near future. The programme would be on BBC One or Two, but no date has yet been agreed.
In April, 1.9m viewers tuned into a debate on membership of the EU between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage, which was broadcast simultaneously on BBC Two and BBC News Channel.
STV’s debate will be hosted by Bernard Ponsonby, its political editor, at Glasgow’s Royal Conservatoire. It will mirror the format of the UK prime ministerial contests of 2010.
The decision not to make the debate available on live television throughout the UK taps into the question of whether shows can be successful if they are online only.
Although internet audiences have grown fast in recent years, online-only programmes rarely attract the millions of viewers offered by broadcast TV.
The debate also comes at a time when news shows are struggling to maintain young audiences, who often catch up with events online throughout the day rather than waiting for an evening bulletin.
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