Boris Johnson had declined to take part in tonight’s show, the first-ever climate crisis election debate, with the Conservative party putting forward the former Environment Secretary in his place. But Channel 4 bosses barred Mr Gove from taking part on the basis it was for party leaders only. It is understood that the Labour leader was asked if Mr Gove could take part but he refused.
Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, who had refused to take part in the debate, was also replaced with an ice sculpture.
The show went ahead with Mr Corbyn, Nicola Sturgeon, Jo Swinson and the co-leader of the Green Party Sian Berry.
A ferocious war of words broke out between Channel 4 and the Conservative Party moments before the programme went on air.
A Conservative spokesman said: “We are deeply disappointed that Channel 4 News has conspired with Jeremy Corbyn to block the Conservatives from making the case for tackling climate change and protecting the environment in this evening’s debate.
“Under this Government, the UK was the first advanced economy in the world to legislate for a net zero target and we’ve reduced emissions faster than any other advanced economy while continuing to grow our economy.
“Broadcasters have important responsibilities to present a balanced debate representing all parties, and Michael Gove was well qualified to represent the Conservative position at this evening’s debate.”
Ben de Pear, the editor of Channel 4 News, said: “These two ice sculptures represent the emergency on planet earth, not in any human form but are a visual metaphor for the Conservative and Brexit parties after their leaders declined our repeated invitations to attend tonight’s vital climate debate.”
And in a dramatic escalation, it emerged that the Conservative Party is threatening to review the broadcaster’s public service broadcasting obligations.
“If we are re-elected we will have to review Channel 4’s Public Services Broadcasting obligations,” the source said.
“Broadcasting organisations are rightly held to a higher standard — and particularly Channel 4 which has a special role enshrined in legislation. 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.”
The Conservative Party has also made a formal complaint to the TV watchdog Ofcom.
Channel 4 is unique among UK broadcasters in that it is a publicly owned “public service broadcaster”, which means it has licencing obligations imposed on it by the regulator Ofcom including requirements for impartial news, current affairs, original programming and production outside of London.
The remit of Channel 4 is underpinned by legislation.
In 2014, Ofcom renewed Channel 4’s main public service broadcasting licence until the end of 2024.
The Tories say that means its place as a public service broadcaster will need to be re-evaluated in the next Parliament.
The threat comes after a series of public spats between senior Tories and Channel 4 news managers and editors over access to politicians.
During the Conservative party leadership campaign, Johnson snubbed the broadcaster’s debate.
In August, Channel 4 boss Dorothy Byrne called Mr Johnson a “known liar”, while also likening his approach to broadcasting statements on social media to that of Russian president Vladimir Putin “who also likes to talk directly to the nation”.
Mr Johnson is not taking part because of SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon’s involvement.
The PM has said he will not take participate in any debates with Ms Sturgeon in the run up to December 12 on the grounds that she is not standing to be an MP.
Mr Gove took part in a live Q & A on Climate Change on Facebook at the same time as the channel 4 TV debate.