UKIP: legitimised by the media?
April 24, 2014 — Comment
Written by John Grayson
John Grayson examines the way UKIP’s messages have been legitimised and in some cases promoted by the media.
The self-proclaimed leader of ‘the people’s army’ can relish his victory. Nigel Farage – whose party was once dismissed as a home for fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists – has established himself as a big beast in the political jungle. (Nick Robinson, BBC TV Political News Editor, ‘Farage v Clegg: the verdict’, 3 April 2014.)
I would think we have probably taken a third of the BNP vote directly from them, I don’t think anyone has done more, apart from Nick Griffin on Question Time, to damage the BNP than UKIP and I am quite proud of that. (Nigel Farage speaking to Chatham House think-tank, 31 March 2014.)
In far-right mythology, Jean-Marie Le Pen was able to launch the Front National (FN) as a result of spectacular and ‘frighteningly charismatic’ appearances on French TV’s then flagship current affairs show L’Heure de Vérité (The Hour of Truth) in 1984. This gave him the opportunity to introduce into political discourse far-right ideas which were previously kept out of the media. Le Pen’s influence was not eroded or even stalled by others getting the better of him in televised debates. Instead – and crucially for the FN strategy – hitherto taboo subjects, from Holocaust revisionism to myths about racial inequality, were reintroduced to the mainstream.
In October 2009, Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP, finally made it on to BBC’s Question Time – and dramatically fluffed it – hence Nigel Farage’s boast above. His appearance was linked to a decision by the Labour Cabinet to end their ‘no platform’ policy with the BNP, and Jack Straw was put up for the panel. But perhaps more interestingly, it was revealed by a former Question Time producer that this ‘grotesque stunt’ had been in the making since 2007. According to the journalist Daniel Trilling, the BBC was aiming to draw in viewers and the BNP on Question Time was ‘Punch and Judy politics at its height’.
The promotion of far Right and racist politics as entertainment has continued with the BBC’s fascination with – and inadvertent promotion of – Nigel Farage’s UKIP. For many years, Farage has been adopted by the BBC as a ‘character’ who can usefully represent minority parties on Question Time. Since 2004 he has appeared twenty-six times; between 2009 and 2013 fourteen times, more than any other single politician of any party. Farage now has so much confidence in UKIP’s place in the showcase programme that in January 2014 he publicly accused the BBC of bias in choosing live audiences for Question Time when there are UKIP panellists. He wants the audiences ‘representative of opinion polls’, and questions whether the BBC is ‘being exploited by the hard left’ in its selections.
Over the past year the BBC has stood out amongst media outlets with the prominence it has given to Farage and UKIP. At UKIP’s recent spring conference in Torquay, the Telegraph reported:
The signs are that UKIP has arrived as a political force judging by the 20-strong list of foreign media that were accredited for the party’s Spring conference in Torquay including correspondents from Chinese state media, Le Monde in France, Mega TV in Greece and Swiss public radio. No one can outdo the BBC overstaffing an event. It sent 12 staff. One UKIP insider: ‘It’s like the Glastonbury festival.’
Farage himself has been given a very easy ride indeed with the British press and media – including the ‘liberal’ broadsheets. Decca Aitkenhead of the Guardian interviewed Farage in January 2013 and managed to almost joke about UKIP’s campaign in Rotherham in the previous November. She described Farage as ‘one of the most surprising politicians I have met – charismatic, funny, indefatigably good natured and essentially cheerful towards absolutely everyone, apart from the prime minister and Rotherham council’.
Page Hall, Sheffield
UKIP’s central campaign issue for the past year, the impending ‘invasion’ of EU migrant workers (particularly Roma people) from Romania and Bulgaria, has been constantly kept alive and revived by the BBC. When the ‘invasion’ did not happen, the BBC apparently decided to suggest that it already had, claiming that Roma people were causing mayhem on the streets and refusing to integrate. BBC programmes revived the moral panic instigated by David Blunkett’s November 2013 comments about the Page Hall area in Sheffield, despite the fact that the British local and national press, Czech and Slovak press, and British and European TV and radio had exhaustively covered the Page Hall story at the time. (Read an IRR News story by John Grayson: ‘Sheffield’s Roma, David Blunkett and an immoral racist panic’.)
Issues around Roma people in Page Hall were covered on the BBC’s The Truth about Immigration on 7 January by Nick Robinson, interviewing the same people interviewed in Sheffield by the British national press and TV and European journalists in November last year. The day before, Monday 6 January, BBC Radio Sheffield had devoted a whole morning to Page Hall. The regional BBC 1 Inside Out: Yorkshire and Lincolnshire had a report on the Roma by Benjamin Zephaniah, whose family had settled originally in Burngreave, adjacent to Page Hall, in the 1960s. On the morning of 7 January, the Radio 4 Today’s feature interview trailing The Truth about Immigration was with … Nigel Farage.
Most remarkable of all was the piece on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on 28 March 2014 titled ‘Roma community must integrate more’, by John Humphrys himself, who had travelled to Sheffield with a crew to interview the same critics of the local Roma population who had featured in the BBC’s November and January interviews. In all of this, there was no new ‘news’ or developments over the four months of BBC scrutiny of a small group of Roma people on one obscure inner city road in Sheffield. But the Humphrys report did remind people (implicitly and at times explicitly) of David Blunkett’s warnings from November 2013 that ‘We have to change the behaviour and culture’ of Roma people in Page Hall. It also, of course, reminded everyone of UKIP’s claims of Roma from Bulgaria and Romania invading British cities. It was significant that Humphrys could not obtain even one interview with anyone in the local Roma community.
The BBC had obviously decided that the immigration debate was made up of UKIP’s agenda and its ‘facts’, which could be ‘balanced’ simply by making statements about the value of immigration. The net effect has been the elevation of a far-right populist party with no seats in Parliament, to the stature of a mainstream ‘big beast’ in British politics.
The second Farage/Clegg debate on the BBC
Earlier this year, Farage and Nick Clegg went ‘head-to-head’ in two high-profile televised debates. The BBC decided to screen the second of these on 2 April, giving it the full ‘election broadcast’ treatment, from just before 6 pm for three and a half hours to 9.37pm on its news channel, and made it available on the BBC website. The actual debate was broadcast on BBC2 and BBC News 24 at 7pm and repeated at 9pm the following day on the BBC Parliament channel. The BBC gave full coverage to the inevitable YouGov and ICOM/Guardian viewer polls, and access to the ‘Spin Room’ awash with journalists, politicians and spin doctors – just like the General Election debates of 2010. The debate was of course chaired by the voice of BBC election coverage, David Dimbleby.
What was never on the agenda was any scrutiny of Farage or UKIP. And as the political commentator Mehdi Hasan said:
Astonishingly, across two hours, on two broadcast media outlets, up against a well-informed opponent and taking questions from live studio audiences, Farage wasn’t questioned even once over UKIP’s dodgy far-right allies in the European Parliament, over UKIP MEP Gerard Batten’s dodgy anti-Muslim remarks or over his own dodgy remarks about being unable to hear people speaking English on his train. As I said: happy birthday, Nigel. You couldn’t have asked for a better gift from the pro-Europeans.
More TV debates and rows – and UKIP ever present
The BBC has not been alone in its promotion of UKIP. On Tuesday 17 February, while Channel 4 was showing a debate on its controversial series Benefits Street, over on Channel 5 was a programme billed as a Big British Immigration Row. The Express and Daily Star, owned by Richard Desmond who also owns Channel 5, trailed the debate and had extensive coverage the day after – mainly about physical confrontations and verbal abuse from the self styled non-racist commentator Katie Hopkins. The two-hour show was certainly a ‘row’, with a former head of the Home Office claiming there was mass forgery of passports and papers by migrants, while celebrities swapped insults.
The sole politician on the programme was UKIP’s immigration spokesman MEP Gerard Batten (he of the dodgy anti-Muslim remarks). Prior to the debate, Channel 4 had commissioned YouGov to produce a poll which was announced as proving ‘70 per cent of people want a curb on immigration’ and which was used to frame the ‘facts about immigration’. Tim Stanley in the Telegraph described the programme as typical of debates generated by the issue of immigration: ‘[A] poisonous debate about race and class. The tone of the debate on the Big British Immigration Row testifies to the panic and hate that economic squeeze can generate.’
The Daily Express, UKIP and Patrick O’Flynn
The Big British Immigration Row certainly connected the UKIP agenda with campaigns which Desmond’s Daily Express has launched in recent years. The former political editor of the Express, Patrick O’Flynn, has now become the lead UKIP candidate for the East of England for the Euro elections in May. In January, O’Flynn became Communications Director for UKIP. He is a very experienced journalist and as former colleague Peter Oborne of the Telegraph put, it ‘a catch that UKIP can boast about’.
O’Flynn also has a controversial recent career with his statements on Muslims in the columns of the Express. In January, HOPE not Hate claimed that ‘The Express journalist regularly used his newspaper column to spew his particular brand of Islamophobia’, and the organisation highlights the following statements from 2008 (among others):
If we allow the uncontrolled expansion of non-integrated British Islam the character of our nation will be destroyed forever. To inflict the Muslim call to prayer on everyone with a Mosque in their area will have but one result – more so-called ‘white flight’ out of urban areas and the creation of more Islamic ghettos. (8 January)
To ordinary British ears the wail of the Mosque is not just an unwelcome racket, but an alien and threatening sound. (8 January)
Why should we trust Britain’s Muslims? (12 February)
On an economic level, the impact of Britain’s Muslims is massively negative. Research shows Muslim communities are typified by heavy levels of welfare dependency and low levels of wealth creation. (12 February)
Muslim urban ghettos have also reintroduced electoral fraud as a regular feature of British political life. (12 February)
It is, of course, by no means rare for political journalists to move into political PR. Guto Harri, for example, left the BBC to work for Boris Johnson; Craig Oliver went to Downing Street after nineteen years as a broadcast journalist and has now been joined by Graeme Wilson of the Sun, while Ed Miliband employs three former lobby journalists – Bob Roberts (Daily Mirror), Patrick Hennessy (Sunday Telegraph) and Tom Baldwin (Times). What is unusual though is for a political journalist to move to political PR and immediately seek political office.
The very experienced O’Flynn is perhaps one of the reasons UKIP has had such a successful media profile over the past months. On 27 March, he appeared in the ITV 1 Tonight special (The Truth about Immigration: a drain or an asset) which focused mainly on immigration in Peterborough. O’Flynn, again, was the only national party politician on the programme.
Channel 4 completed the TV mainstreaming of Nigel Farage with an hour-long profile on 31 March called Nigel Farage: who are you?, commissioned by self confessed rightwing libertarian Martin Durkin. Neil Midgley in the Telegraph perhaps said it all when he described the programme as ‘such a cloying tribute, even UKIP supporters must have found it a bit sickly to watch’.
In the press the Guardian continued the theme of xenophobic politicians as entertainment with a defence of Farage from Simon Jenkins on 3 April. After admitting UKIP has a similar approach to the FN in France, Jenkins argued that Farage was ‘in a long line of political eccentrics’ like Enoch Powell. He is ‘shrewdly rebellious’ like ‘Wilkes, Cobbett and even Tony Benn’, he continued, and at root he is ‘patently a Tory who should by rights be challenging Cameron from inside the party, not outside. A contest for the leadership between him and Boris Johnson would add vastly to the entertainment of the nation.’
Scanning the press and TV coverage of Nigel Farage and UKIP over the past few months, it is very hard to believe that only just over four years ago there was a national debate, as well as demonstrations outside the BBC, when Nick Griffin was welcomed into the national broadcaster’s studios. ‘The BBC’s decision to provide a platform for fascists to distort democracy remains nothing less than a disgrace’, said academic Jim Wolfreys in the Guardian at the time. Speaking about Jean-Marie Le Pen and his TV appearance back in 1984, Wolfreys pointed out that:
Racists and antisemites were emboldened. Their politics are not motivated by reason or defeated by clever turns of phrase, so their world view appeared vindicated by the profile and status conferred upon Le Pen by a compliant media. A craven political elite that capitulated to FN myths on law and order, immigration and asylum further enhanced this status.
Farage is certainly not Jean-Marie Le Pen but the historical analogy is apt.
Read an IRR News story: ‘Sheffield’s Roma, David Blunkett and an immoral racist panic’
Read an IRR News story: ‘The shameful “go home” campaign‘
References:  Daniel Trilling, Bloody Nasty People: the rise of Britain’s far right, (London, Verso, 2012), p. 168.  Ibid.  I owe this reference to Marion Horton.
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.