THE BBC has decided to change its format and run the final leaders’ debate of the 2021 Holyrood election without a live audience, The National can reveal.

It is also understood that the debate will be chaired by BBC Scotland’s political editor Glenn Campbell, rather than the BBC’s Scotland editor Sarah Smith, who conducted the first.

The first BBC debate, screened on March 30, received a slew of complaints about “anti-independence bias” after three consecutive audience questions in the first 30 minutes focused on the timing of a second referendum.

The next debate is due to be shown on the BBC on May 4, two days before Scotland goes to the polls.

READ MORE: BBC hit by flood of complaints over anti-indy bias in Leaders' Debate

People who had applied to be in the audience for that debate had been screened and checked, with selected applicants sent an email confirming their long-listed status on April 20.

However, later that same day those applicants were sent a second email saying that the decision had been taken not to have a live audience present during the debate.

The message from one of the producers, seen by The National, reads: “Apologies for my earlier email today about being on the long-list for the Scottish Leaders Debate audience on Tuesday, May 4.

“There has been a change in format and the programme will no longer have a live audience.

“I’m so sorry about this change but hopefully it comes early enough for you to rearrange your week in advance. It is also important to note that this change to the Scottish Leaders Debate does not exclude you from taking part in other BBC programming.”

When the BBC were approached for comment, they denied that any of the details of the debate had been finalised.

After further pressure, a spokesperson for the corporation admitted that they had “decided on a different approach” to their first debate, which saw members of the public engage directly with the leaders of some of Scotland’s political parties.

The spokesperson said: “We’re still finalising the exact format of our debate but we do intend to spend more time on issues that have dominated the campaign while our presenter Glenn Campbell (below) will scrutinise the party manifestos.

The National:

“Both our first programme and [yesterday’s] Question Time from Scotland include audience involvement, so we’ve decided on a different approach for this one and don’t intend to include them directly in this final debate.

“We hope you’ll tune in on Tuesday, May 4 from 7.50pm on BBC1 Scotland and The News Channel.”

Following the first debate broadcast, the BBC received 277 complaints from people who felt that Unionist views had been given unfair precedence.

The first three questions asked by the audience all concerned the timing of indyref2, a situation which broadcaster and National columnist Lesley Riddoch said “was no indication of public opinion”.

She went on: “It was a BBC production choice and, given its charter and statutory requirement for fairness and balance during elections, a BBC production mistake.

“Quite obviously, a TV audience is consciously and carefully constructed. It doesn’t appear out of thin air.

READ MORE: Lesley Riddoch: The BBC needs to improve its debate format to get more Scots tuning in

“With only 20-odd virtual audience members, the production team and presenter would certainly have known the outlook of each questioner in advance and thus the likely political impact of inviting them to speak.”

Channel 4 has also announced it will air a Scottish leaders’ debate in the run-up to May 6. This will be broadcast live UK-wide at 7pm on April 27.

Journalist Krishnan Guru-Murthy will chair the debate.

Like the BBC and STV debates, the Channel 4 offering will also not feature Alba’s leader Alex Salmond.

Salmond has previously claimed that the BBC and STV were “censoring” his party.