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We can’t just blame Ukip’s success on media bias

Did the constant presence of Ukip in the media lead to the party’s success? It’s not so simple, argues Ian Taylor

Issue No. 2406

It was as if you couldn’t turn on the TV or pick up a paper last month without seeing Ukip leader Nigel Farage posing with a pint.

So was it the media that won it for Ukip, as The Sun claimed to have won the 1992 general election for the Tories? 

The press coverage must have made some difference. 

One study found Ukip featured in 25,000 British newspaper articles last year, up from 10,000 in 2012 and less than 5,300 in 2009.

The numbers will be even higher this year.

The BBC has received more than 1,200 complaints over its disproportionate coverage of Ukip. It has featured Farage on its flagship Question Time show more than any other politician in recent years.

Newspapers and TV have a capacity to create heroes and destroy reputations. 

The celebrity culture would not exist otherwise.

And smear campaigns, such as the one against miners’ leader Arthur Scargill in 1992, would have no possibility of success if the media had no impact. 

Although the one against Scargill ultimately failed. 

So if another small party had enjoyed a similar amount of coverage as Ukip in the past year, and attracted the funds to stand as many candidates, they might have done better. 

The Greens might not have finished 20 points behind, for example.

But this can’t be the whole story. Otherwise how come Ukip candidates’ average vote in local elections a year ago was higher, at 24 percent, than the 17 percent they polled this May?

And how come Ukip polled just 7 percent in local elections in London? The same newspapers were available in London as elsewhere. 

So the media can’t have been decisive.

The underlying reason is that mainstream newspapers and TV do not so much shape people’s views as reflect ideas that dominate in society.

At the most basic level, the system runs on profit and most people, for most of their adult life, can only live by earning a wage. 

Those who sit outside this reality either have to be rich and envied for it, or “scroungers” and looked down upon.

When the economy is booming, bosses need migrants. When times are harder, migrants provide a scapegoat for disaffection.

The media broadly reflects this. Underlying much of the Ukip coverage was the idea that the party’s rise was unstoppable.

Certainly, Ukip campaigned on fertile ground. The media and mainstream parties prepared the way for it by insisting immigration was a problem. 

Consider the Daily Express and Daily Star which barely let a day go by without a front page on the “dangers” posed by immigrants.

They have maintained this daily diet for years, beginning with attacks on asylum seekers. And they are only the most extreme. 

Given the extent and duration of this racist propaganda campaign, it is remarkable that Ukip did not score higher than a 27 percent share of a 34 percent turnout.

Clearly, most people aren’t so easily fooled. But a significant proportion of people are struggling—whether unemployed, poorly housed or low paid—and others fear to lose what they have. 

So the lie that there is an “undeserving” group enjoying what they are not can gain currency.

Of course, there is exactly such an undeserving group doing that—the rich, including Nigel Farage and his backers.

But the media would hardly identify the rich as a problem. Its owners would not agree. 


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Tue 3 Jun 2014, 17:56 BST
Issue No. 2406
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