The media will be banned from attending any of the nine SNP leadership hustings events taking place around Scotland over the coming weeks, the party has announced.
A spokesman for the SNP’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) said on Tuesday that that the events would only be open to party members, not the media or the wider public through an online live stream.
He said the committee had decided that the hustings process should be a “safe space” for members to ask questions of the three candidates, Humza Yousaf, Ash Regan and Kate Forbes.
The nine events could be crucial in deciding who becomes the leader of the SNP and Scotland’s next First Minister after Nicola Sturgeon announced her intention to resign earlier this month.
The SNP NEC spokesman said: “SNP members are the lifeblood of our party and our movement.
“It is the members who will be voting for the next leader of the party, so the SNP NEC has designed the party hustings as a safe space for members to ask questions of the three candidates.”
Conservative MSPs were quick to criticise the decision on social media. Murdo Fraser said: “This is extraordinary. We are talking here not just about the next SNP leader but also Scotland’s next First Minister.”
“The Conservatives welcomed media to all our leadership hustings – what are the SNP afraid of?”
His MSP colleague Stephen Kerr claimed the SNP was “a party terrified that Scotland might learn just how crazy and out of touch they really are, once the curtains are lifted”.
Ian Murray, the Shadow Scottish Secretary, has also written to SNP chief executive Peter Murrell asking him to “open the doors to journalists” and also to allow the public to watch the hustings so the candidates can be scrutinised.
“It is completely unacceptable that such an important contest can be conducted in secrecy, with the people of Scotland given no say whatsoever in choosing their next leader,” he added.
It is understood that broadcasters and photographers will be allowed into the hustings venues to take video and pictures of the candidates at the start of each hustings, but will then have to depart.
Separately, STV is due to host a live televised debate next Tuesday, 7 March, with the BBC also expected to air one before the end of the contest.
SNP party members will be able to cast a vote for their preferred candidate from noon on 13 March.
The ballot will remain open for a fortnight before closing at noon on 27 March, at which point the next leader – and likely new First Minister – will be announced.
The dates and times of the planned SNP hustings are as follows:
March 1, 7-9pm – Central Scotland: Cumbernauld Theatre at Lanternhouse
March 3, 6.30-8.30 – Mid Scotland and Fife: Rothes Hall, Glenrothes
March 4, 1-3pm – Highlands and Islands: Eden Court, Inverness
March 5, 1-3pm – Online
March 6, 7-9pm – South Scotland: Easterbrook Hall, Dumfries
March 8, 7-9pm – West Scotland: Johnstone Town Hall
March 10, 6.30-8.30pm – Lothians: Corn Exchange, Edinburgh
March 11, 1-3pm – Glasgow: University of Strathclyde
March 12, 1-3pm – North East: Tivoli Theatre Company, Aberdeen