ITV could face a legal challenge from the official Brexit campaign after the broadcaster revealed its plans to hold an EU referendum programme involving David Cameron and Nigel Farage. The prime minister and Ukip leader and will take questions from the same studio audience on 7 June as part of 'Cameron and Farage Live'.
The format means the politicians will not have a head-to-head debate during the show, but the plan has triggered a row because Farage is not aligned with the Vote Leave campaign. The group, which beat Leave.EU and Grassroots Out for the Electoral Commission's lead "leave" designation, reportedly accused ITV of a "stitch-up".
"ITV has lied to us in private while secretly stitching-up a deal with Cameron to stop Boris Johnson or Michael Gove debating the issues properly," an unattributed Vote Leave source said to the media.
But the group later released an official statement on the situation, stressing that it is considering legal remedies.
"ITV has accepted the prime minister's demands without even discussing it with the official campaign and has allowed the prime minister to dictate his own opponent," a Vote Leave spokesperson said.
"Since the campaign began, ITV has also given twice as much airtime to the In campaign than to the Leave campaign.
"We think that the prime minister ought to debate the representative of the official Leave campaign. In a serious democracy, the government should not be allowed by a free media to pick its own opponents in the official debates on the most important political decision in decades.
"We are discussing legal possibilities to increase the chances that the public will hear the issues properly discussed before they make such an important vote on the future of their democratic rights."
'ITV has not lied to anyone'
But ITV hit back at the suggestion that the broadcaster had misled Vote Leave. "ITV has not lied to anyone, nor has there been any kind of 'stitch-up'," a spokeswoman said.
"It was our editorial decision as to who would take part in the June 7 programme; the prime minister called the referendum, and the country wants to hear from him, and Nigel Farage has been a leading proponent of an exit from the EU for more than 20 years and his party received 3.8 million votes at the election. We invited them both and they accepted."
ITV also stressed that senior Vote Leave spokespeople will take part in the broadcaster's second live programme on 9 June, the ITV Referendum Debate. The format will see "leave" and "remain" political figures put their cases forward in front of a studio audience.
"We think our viewers will find both programmes useful in providing information ahead of polling day. Our programming will, as always, be fair, balanced and duly impartial," the spokeswoman added.
Meanwhile, Ukip accused Vote Leave of attempting to exclude Farage from the referendum campaign. "It is deeply disappointing that rather than rallying behind Nigel for what will be the biggest one-on-one debate of the referendum campaign, Vote Leave are instead threatening court action to stop Nigel from taking on the prime minister," a spokesman for the Ukip leader said.
"All on the leave side must put their egos to one side and support Nigel as he prepares to take on the prime minister in what will undoubtedly be the defining moment of the referendum campaign."