A storm of media coverage about the UK Independence Party has accompanied a badly handled case where Rotherham social services allegedly barred party members from becoming foster parents. And because the party has recently risen in the opinion polls, and there is a by-election in Rotherham, the media is full of stories about potential defections to UKIP from the ranks of Conservative MPs, UKIP “at war” with the Tories, and other such sensational coverage (see the Telegraph, Independent, Daily Mail). Earlier attacks by the Prime Minister on UKIP (the ‘racist’ label) have backfired, and appear to have been used as justification for the Labour local authority denying UKIP members the right to foster.
Importantly for UKIP, major political figures and parts of the mainstream media have (possibly inadvertently) broken with the omerta of dismissing the party and are now in response to the scandal describing it as “mainstream”, a description that UKIP is rejoicing in. The tidal wave of sympathetic coverage still, though, tends to the typical – reactive of others’ agendas, highly personal and opinion-led and with little relationship to what the party would do either in power or if it was in a position to share it.
So why did it have to take a scandal to achieve even this amount of sustained, if unserious, coverage of the party?
At the recent Corby by-election UKIP, with almost no national media coverage, achieved over 14 percent of the vote, while government coalition partners the LibDems lost their deposit. This itself follows over a year in which opinion polls have regularly shown the LibDems and UKIP level in polling and two years after the party came second in the share of the UK vote in the European Elections. And yet, a simple glance at the national media in the whole of that period shows that coverage has either been close to zero or dominated by mocking and dismissive opinion pieces by cheerleaders for (usually) the Conservative Party, who feel most threatened by the rise of UKIP. TV and radio have given token coverage and the party has been barred from debates and media coverage by BBC ‘balance’ rules for elections, rules which are causing disquiet, not just to UKIP. (I describe this in detail in my piece on the London mayoral elections.)
When I was Vice Chair of UKIP almost 10 years ago, I tried to take a dispassionate view and investigate the lack of mainstream coverage, the reasons behind it, and what could be done to counter this.
What emerged was as much a reflection on the media and its role in modern politics as on UKIP. What is happening now with the Rotherham scandal tends to reinforce what I found – that ‘conspiracy’ is too strong a word, but that political diversity is squashed by vested interests until an issue cannot be ignored. The institutional conservatism of newspapers and TV, which are media of entertainment first and foremost, has tended to make them portray as unhinged or comic any individual or group which does not function within the career parameters of the existing main parties. George Galloway’s March 2012 election victory in Bradford West for Respect typifies this – almost always described as “unexpected”, yet it was nothing of the kind to those who were campaigning there. It was simply that the national media had collectively dismissed Galloway as some extremist clown and therefore could not fit into its world view the possibility that he could win a by-election.
The BBC fears causing offence to those “main” parties who in power might threaten the licence fee. It is widely claimed that UKIP’s moderate rise of a few percent in 2010 stopped the Conservatives from forming a government on their own, such is the impact of such a party in a first past the post election. Assisting UKIP by allowing it serious media coverage, they know, would enrage the Conservatives.
UKIP, and indeed the Greens, are easy to dismiss as single issue parties, and to some degree this is true. But the almost complete silence about these parties in elections other than one-off features or dismissive commentary has led to anger and astonishment from within and without the parties. Ten years ago, UKIP supporters often took as read that the media were reflecting some greater truth – that the party itself was somehow deficient and justified exclusion. Now many of these supporters have become radicalised and have a far greater conviction that it is those who are attacking them who are deficient.
Blogs like eureferendum.com and yourfreedomandours.blogspot.com are now read by most committed UKIP supporters and drip scorn on powerful establishment forces (above all the national media which are dismissed as trivial, out of touch, corrupt and collaborationist). The fact that they are often critical of UKIP as well is almost irrelevant. These forums have had an extraordinary effect upon the membership of the party in the last decade: the reliance upon the Daily Telegraph for feel-good Tory-orientated euroscepticism has been replaced by radical online media which savage the Conservatives and call into question the actions of all institutions – charities, the monarchy, international organisations, banks – for complicity in attacks on the UK’s independence.
As many have said, once the Rotherham scandal dies down, this short burst of recognition for UKIP will almost certainly dwindle away. I believe this would be a mistake. The unraveling of the Eurozone has been an obvious key to the party’s recent growth and is set to continue. We may see a future in which UKIP begins to establish itself as Britain’s third party in place of the Lib Dems, with no serious and sustained information provided to voters by detached observers. The media urgently needs to cover the party properly with all that this implies, shorn of its usual auto contempt and lack of detail. To simply ignore it now is bad for democracy.