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No election-debate reprieve for Elizabeth May

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May prepares to hold a news conference on her exclusion from the leaders debates in Vancouver on March 30, 2011.


The broadcast consortium that barred Elizabeth May from participating in the televised leaders debates said it will not back down on its decision, despite tens of thousands of letters from angry voters and a last-ditch court challenge by the Green Party.

The group is also facing criticism from within, with CBC Ombudsman Kirk LaPointe writing on his blog that there was little reason to exclude the Green Party leader.

The television consortium - comprised of the top newsroom executives at CBC/Radio-Canada, CTV, Global, and TVA - is under fire for not including the Green Party leader in the debates to be broadcast in English on April 12 and French on April 14 after the "the application of journalistic principles, and the fact that the Green Party has never elected a member to Parliament."

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A write-in campaign - encouraged by the Green Party and helped along with a list of e-mails and phone numbers for the consortium's members - has seen upwards of 20,000 messages arrive in the last 24 hours.

It's deja vu for the consortium's members, which initially excluded Ms. May from the 2008 debates but capitulated two days later after a groundswell of support. Chairman Troy Reeb said the decision, this time, will not be overturned regardless of public opinion.

"Our decision is final and the decision is unanimous," said Mr. Reeb, the vice-president of news for Shaw Media, which includes Global TV. "It will not be reconsidered."

Still, Ms. May, speaking at a campaign event in Saanich, B.C. said she hopes a Charter challenge arguing that the consortium's decision is "by definition capricious and arbitrary" could still land her a spot at the debates, which this year are set up in a way that will encourage more one-on-one confrontations between leaders.

"If we are relying on court action, we have to pull of a number of legal miracles," she said.

While the consortium has been criticized as an undemocratic group that doesn't have the best interests of the electorate at heart, Mr. Reeb said it doesn't claim to provide equal access to all candidates. It seeks to provide "equitable" coverage rather than "equal," he said.

Indeed in 1995, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that broadcasters need not include all parties in a debate.

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"Here's the reality. The consortium has no legal standing. It does not exist as a legal entity," he said, adding there are no written rules to follow and that decisions are made based on what provides the most value to viewers. "It is simply an ad hoc gathering of the five conventional networks."

The broadcasters started collaborating on debates in the 1970s as a way to cut costs and co-ordinate their schedules, and consider the broadcast a public service. The co-operative approach ensures everyone is at the same place at the same time, and that viewers from coast-to-coast have the same exposure to the leaders. It also helps them defray the production costs, which could run up to $200,000 for two hours in prime-time.

NDP leader Jack Layton this week called the consortium "a shadowy group of television executives who seem unlikely to qualify as the best guardians of democracy," but Mr. Reeb said there's nothing stopping other networks from inviting the leaders to participate in an alternate debate.

"We have no monopoly," he said. "If someone else were to run a good one, we may even think about picking it up."

They may think about it, but it isn't a strong possibility.

The consortium sets dates well in advance, because the networks want to pick a night that will cause the least amount of financial pain for each network. One of the reasons April 12 was chosen for the English debate is that the CBC didn't want the debates knocking the hockey playoffs off the air. They start on April 13.

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Steve Paikin, host of TV Ontario's The Agenda, will once again host the English-language debate, according to someone close to the negotiations. Mr. Paikin's position with the Ontario government's private broadcaster makes him a choice that profits none of the national networks, whose senior journalists and anchors vie for public prominence.

He'll be presiding over a format that the consortium developed to increase the number of one-on-one confrontations between the party leaders. Each segment will initially pit two leaders against each other on a question.

"There will be less of everyone jumping in and more opportunity for two leaders to go head-to-head before everyone jumps in," Mr. Reeb said. "We reserve the right to determine which questions to which leaders of course - we are trying to make good television here after all."

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