Tories complain to Ofcom over Boris Johnson ice sculpture TV debate replacement

By Luke Powell, PA

The Conservative Party has complained to Ofcom’s election committee after an ice sculpture was used in place of Boris Johnson during a Channel 4 debate.

Party leaders faced questions about how they will tackle the issue of climate change during the televised Emergency On Planet Earth debate on Thursday.

But after Prime Minister Mr Johnson did not attend, an ice sculpture of the world with “Conservatives” written on it was placed on his podium.

A letter from the Conservatives, addressed to Ofcom Election Committee chairman Tim Suter, said it offered Channel 4 the former environment secretary Michael Gove to be the party’s representative for the debate.

“Channel 4 News has refused to accept this representative, and stated that they intend to ’empty chair’ the Conservative Party if the Prime Minister does not attend,” the letter said.

“This effectively seeks to deprive the Conservative Party of any representation and attendance at the Channel 4 News debate.

“It has even been reported that Channel 4 has commissioned an ice sculpture of the Prime Minister to represent the Conservative Party.

“Were this the case, this would represent a significant breach of the Code through such a provocative partisan stunt, which would itself constitute making a political opinion in its own right.”

Mr Gove turned up at the television studio with the Prime Minister’s father Stanley Johnson before the debate was due to kick off.

Editor of Channel 4 News Ben de Pear said Stanley Johnson had been invited and offered to take his son’s place.

A spokeswoman for Channel 4 News said ahead of the programme that Mr Gove “is not the party leader” when asked if he could replace Mr Johnson.

The letter, sent by Lee Cain, on behalf of the Conservative Party, claimed it “is part of a wider pattern of bias by Channel 4 in recent months”.

“I would be grateful if Ofcom could consider this matter with due urgency.

An ice sculpture is put in place for Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the studio before the start of the Channel 4 News General Election climate debate (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

“If Ofcom takes the view that this matter could not be considered until post-broadcast, I would request that this complaint is assessed subsequent to the broadcast, given the unfortunate precedents that Channel 4’s actions may set.”

It comes as a Conservative source told BuzzFeed News that if the party wins the coming election it will reassess Channel 4’s public service broadcasting licence.

“If we are re-elected, we will have to review Channel 4’s Public Services Broadcasting obligations,” the source told BuzzFeed News.

“Any review would of course look at whether its remit should be better focused so it is serving the public in the best way possible.”

Reacting to the reports, Labour shadow treasury minister Clive Lewis said: “Britain deserves a Prime Minister that has enough of a backbone to face up to scrutiny.”

While Chuka Umunna, of the Liberal Democrats, said: “This is a pathetic attempt to cover up for Boris Johnson’s own cowardice.”

Conservative Party chair James Cleverly tweeted at Channel 4 News editor Mr De Pear: “This is not a presidential election.”

And Mr De Pear said: “Then stop behaving like @realDonaldTrump with the press and media. Put your leader @BorisJohnson alongside the other leaders and stop playing games.

“Don’t refuse & then threaten our license it’s a slippery slope. All the parties complain about us but they’re here #ClimateDebate.”

On Thursday night, Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson wrote to Ofcom’s chief executive Sharon White, urging her to “call out this meddling”, adding: “We need a strong free press. But the Tories are restricting journalists.

“This campaign, Boris Johnson has banned the Daily Mirror from its battle bus, ducked the Andrew Neil interview and now attempted to bully Channel 4.

“I hope you’ll stand with me in defending our free broadcast press from this gross dictatorial act.”

Asked about the letters sent by the Conservative Party and Mr Watson, a spokesman for Ofcom said any complaints made to the regulator will be considered.