ITV has hit back at the Vote Leave campaign after it accused the broadcaster of lying and of being biased in favour of the pro-EU side in the referendum.
An extraordinary row has broken out over ITV's decision to stage a live televised programme featuring David Cameron and Nigel Farage.
Vote Leave, the official pro-Brexit campaign, has threatened to take ITV to court as it does not want Farage representing the 'Leave' camp on TV.
In a blistering attack on the broadcaster last night, Vote Leave accused ITV of "fixing" the debate, of having "lied" and threatening "consequences".
ITV responded this morning dismissing the criticism. Its political editor, Robert Peston accused Vote Leave of launching a "mad slur".
The former chairman of both ITV and the BBC, Lord Grade, said Vote Leave's complaint was "shocking" and accused it of deploying "bullying tactics"
Farage has said it is "deeply disappointing" that Vote Leave wants to shut him out of any TV debates. And said Michael Gove, the chairman of Vote Leave, should "get a grip" of his staff.
The Ukip leader is not part of the official pro-Brexit campaign. Vote Leave does not think Farage is best placed to win over undecided voters. It would prefer Cameron to face Boris Johnson or Gove.
In a statement from a Vote Leave source last night, the campaign said: "The establishment has tried everything from spending taxpayers money on pro-EU propaganda to funding the In campaign via Goldman Sachs. The polls have stayed fifty fifty. They’re now fixing the debates to shut out the official campaign."
The statement added: "ITV is led by people like Robert Peston who campaigned for Britain to join the euro. 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.
"ITV has effectively joined the official In campaign and there will be consequences for its future - the people in No 10 won’t be there for long."
In a follow up statement this morning, the campaign appeared to soften its language. However it said it was "discussing legal possibilities".
"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," it said.
"ITV has also given twice as much airtime to the In campaign than to the Leave campaign."
And it accused the government of announcing the debate between Cameron and Farage in order to distract attention from immigration statistics released today.
“ITV has effectively joined the official In campaign and there will be consequences for its future”
But ITV hit back this morning. "ITV has not lied to anyone, nor has there been any kind of ‘stitch up'," a spokesperson said.
"Senior figures from the Vote Leave campaign have been invited to our debate on June 9 and have every opportunity to air their views and opinions on the issues in a two-hour long peak time programme on ITV.
"It was our editorial decision as to who would take part in the June 7 programme; the PM 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.
"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."
Cameron has reportedly refused to take part in head-to-head television debates before the referendum. The ITV programme will feature him and Farage taking questions from the audience in turn.
This is when the TV debates are
June 2: Sky News hosts programme featuring David Cameron
June 3: Sky News hosts programme featuring Michael Gove
June 7: ITV hosts programme featuring David Cameron and Nigel Farage taking questions from a live studio audience.
June 9: ITV hosts debate between figures from both sides of the campaign.
June 15: BBC Question Time event moderated by David Dimbleby with "one senior advocate from each side".
June 21: BBC live event hosted by David Dimbleby at Wembley Arena with representatives of both sides of the referendum to be questioned by an audience
June 22: Channel 4 hosts programme featuring politicians and campaigners from both sides.
Lord Grade has jumped to the defence of the ITV. "Today’s attempt by the referendum Leave campaign to threaten ITV with political repercussions over their TV debate plans is unacceptable, if not shocking," he said.
"I know the public can rely on broadcasters to resist all bullying tactics in the run up to the referendum. If the Leave campaign has any complaint about a breach of statutory obligations to be impartial, they should take their complaint up with the regulator Ofcom."
A spokesperson for Farage said: "Once again sadly we see Vote Leave seeking to exclude Nigel Farage and Ukip from this referendum campaign.
"It Is deeply disappointing that rather than rallying behind Nigel Farage 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."
"Nigel Farage has a proven track-record in taking on and defeating the pro-EU establishment. Indeed without him and Ukip there wouldn’t even be a referendum, let alone debates.
"This referendum is bigger than the Conservative party and bigger than party politics. It is about the very future of our country and this ITV debate will reflect that.
"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."