Legal action, Mr Salmond?
I'm not sure what I think of this development. I mean, I can see both sides of it.
On the one hand, Sky want to tap into the idea of "Presidential politics", the sense that the leader of the party IS the party and answers for them. They want to make it a personal thing - a one-on-one (okay, a ménage à trois) with the men (it's always bloody men eh?) vying to be Prime Minister. They want to allow a clear debate between the leaders of the parties, giving their viewers a clear idea of the differences between them and an opportunity to judge the best candidate for the job of PM. It's a kind of political X-Factor - complete with public vote and everything (though the vote won't be for some time after the show ends).
However, Sky's bright idea doesn't cater for devolved politics. It doesn't take into account that Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish audiences interested in health or education issues may be misled by statements from the candidates on show, who can do nothing about those policy areas. It doesn't allow for regional variations, for parties of government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to have a voice in the debate. And it reinforces the dominant Westminster political culture by excluding smaller parties - and not just those from the "Celtic fringe".
The question of fairness is the one which is being pursued by the SNP. They argue, legitimately, that while the UK election is basically a two-horse between the Tories and Labour (which makes Nick Clegg's invitation all the more questionable), the fight in Scotland is likely to be a straight Labour-SNP battle (though the Lib Dems do currently have more MPs than the SNP in Scotland, their share of the vote in opinion polls is going in the opposite direction). In Wales, the situation is further muddied by the fact that, although Plaid Cymru are in coalition government with Labour, the Tories (!) actually won the European election there, making it a genuine three-way battle. Northern Irish politics, with its division between nationalist and unionist communities, brings with it an extra element which also requires consideration. And those are just the parties that have representation at the moment - what about UKIP, the Greens and (dare I say it) the BNP?
The principle that Sky have (loosely) been adhering to, is the idea that they should invite the realistic candidates to be Prime Minister. That means limiting their invitations to the leaders of the three main parties on a UK level. However, were this principle to be taken to its logical conclusion, David Cameron would have a solitary invitation. So they've widened it to include the also rans - incumbent PM Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg, whose Lib Dems have 62 seats and would need to make over 250 gains at the next election to make him PM. Just a thought, but Sky could invite me, Jeff and Caron to the debate - we'd have as much of a chance of being PM after the election as Nick Clegg does. And possibly just slightly less of a chance than Gordon Brown.
So really, Sky's own guidelines are based on loose ideas anyway. I guess it is a case of whether they want to accommodate the SNP (who, I think, are the only ones making any real noise about it) or not. But the legal guidelines regarding political coverage at elections are clear (as Jeff points out - in the case of Iraq!). The televised media has to provide equal and balanced coverage. So what can they do?
Well, I guess there are a couple of options. They can go with Salmond's suggestion and have "regional" debates, with Brown, Cameron, Clegg and Salmond in Scotland, Brown, Cameron, Clegg and Wyn Jones in Wales and... well, I guess they'd figure out something for Northern Ireland. Or, they could ignore Salmond and his legal fight, and have their original debate with Brown, Cameron and Clegg. But where would that leave Alex Salmond?
Kind of reminds me of (yet another) West Wing moment, appropriate really given the US-style TV debate. Freedonia, an episode in season 6, sees candidate Matt Santos struggling to get into a local debate - the invitations have gone only to the two lead candidates. Other events take over, but his original idea is to host his own debate and invite the other candidates to come which (eventually) comes to fruition. I wonder if Salmond invited Brown, Cameron and Clegg to a debate, if they would go? Or would Jim Murphy, David Mundell and Alastair Carmichael be sent instead? Or Iain Gray, Annabel Goldie and Tavish Scott?
Mind you, isn't that supposed to be what A National Conversation was supposed to be - an invitation to debate? Problem with that was, not one of the opposition parties showed up.