Nigel Farage has a lot to smile about - but do we? Photo: Derek Bennett via Flickr.com.
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UKIP and the ideal of 'media neutrality'
Matt Hawkins & Clare Phipps
27th March 2013
Nigel Farage's media triumph last night highlights Ofcom's decision that UKIP is a 'major political party' in the Euro-Elections. But Ofcom's view, argue Matt Hawkins & Clare Phipps, rests on the myth that the media reflect, rather than influence, public opinion.
When you're watching a political party broadcast on the BBC, or hear Farage's laughing voice on Radio 2, the whole context speaks of legitimacy.
How did you first hear about the UK Independence Party? Was it when a purple and yellow leaflet dropped through your door?
Or perhaps a sign you saw pinned on your local community notice board, inviting you to their local meeting.
Were you Googling "10 things I hate about immigrants" and were directed to their website? Or did a friendly local UKIP activist knock on your door and ask you whether you disagreed with gay marriage?
Of course, it was the telly
No. Of course not. You first heard about them on the telly like everyone else. As you may also have learnt from the telly, we will now be hearing a lot more of them.
Ofcom have recently decided to declare UKIP a "major" party for the upcoming European Elections - doubling the number of elections broadcasts they will be entitled to and increasing their share of news coverage, as if they don't get more than enough already.
In announcing their decision Ofcom stated that UKIP's electoral performance in the past two European Elections, plus current polling data, demonstrates that they represent a growing segment of public opinion and that ought to be reflected in their media coverage.
If you're not irked by Ofcom's decision, you should be
Now if you are a the type of person that dislikes Public School stock-brokers turned politicians trying to persuade impoverished sections of the community that their problems are due to foreigners and not in fact people like him, this decision will have irked you no matter what.
If, in addition, you are someone with a modicum of understanding of how the dominant sections of our society continue to exert their dominance, all under the banner of "democracy", you will be doubly annoyed.
Of course, you could be in a third category - those resigned to accept Ofcom's decision. Annoying to the socially and environmentally conscious though it may be, it was nonetheless based on "past electoral support and current support".
And UKIP's support has grown - no doubts there. They came third in the 2004 European elections and second in 2009 with 17% of the vote. They are currently polling on 11%.
How did UKIP's support arise?
Before raising a begrudging pint to Farage, just remember - the preference for UKIP hasn't come out of nowhere. It certainly hasn't come out of widespread support for their policies. Nigel himself admits they are drivel.
UKIP members have stated that bad weather is caused by gay people, that Muslims should have to sign a peace-pact in order to live in the UK, and they have branded women as sluts ('in jest', of course).
We've witnessed too many instances of such prejudice for it to be an isolated incident but it this kind of xenophobic, sexist and homophobic venom that we want to be fighting against - not legitimising.
They have also in writing officially stated that they do not believe in man-made climate change. Or, to put it another way, they refute the conclusions of 99% of peer-reviewed scientific papers ever produced on the subject.
So whose policies do the public like?
It is the party working hardest to tackle the prescient matter of climate change, and is representative of public opinion on a smorgasbord of issues from renationalising railways and water companies, making the minimum wage a living wage, and keeping our NHS public.
The truth is that without the media's inherent bias towards right-wing policies, UKIP would have remained nothing but a bunch of "fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists". As it is, they are poised to win the most UK seats in the European Election.
A systemic media bias
But where does that right-wing media bias come from? It's a combination of rich editors and media CEOs protecting their own (and their corporate pals') interests.
And let's not forget the role of proprietors like Rupert Murdoch, the Barclay Brothers, Richard Desmond and Lord Black, all of them with a strong right-wing, pro-corporate agenda to push.
It's harder to figure why the BBC is quite so right-wing as it is. That partly reflects the fact that all its 'top people' - directors, board members, producers, senior journalists - are priviliged and wealthy. Also there is an active revolving door between the BBC and other media companies, so BBC journalists don't want to go too far out of line.
The BBC is also trying desperately to prove how 'not-left-wing' it is - and in its attempt to be 'balanced' and 'neutral' it naturally seeks to place itself in the political mainstream. But that 'mainstream' is, of course, overwhelmingly defined by right wing media.
In any case UKIP's promotion to major party status is not the result of Britons' opinions ebbing and swelling in a vacuous cerebral sea, which Ofcom are merely seeking to passively "reflect".
It's the cumulative result of an existing media bias, a result that will now only go on to further influence public opinion. Even when UKIP was still, in Ofcom's eyes, a "minor party", Nigel Farage appeared on the BBC's Question Time more than any other political leader.
The legitimising effect of media exposure
While news of benefit fraud is on every page, London's recent smog incident which led to air pollution measurements being "very high" barely caused a ripple - despite Paris deeming it so bad they made the Metro free and banned driving every other day.
It is important not to forget that for a political party operating in the age of the ubiquitous media giant, getting your message on to the airwaves can elevate you from rank outsider to political rank-and-file.
It means exposure for your party and your policies and, most importantly, it confers mainstream acceptance. When you're watching a political party broadcast on the BBC, or hear Farage's laughing voice on Radio 2, the whole context speaks of legitimacy.
After all, if you can't trust Auntie, who can you trust?
Matt Hawkins is a Green Party activist who works in the charity sector.
Clare Phipps is a PhD student researching gender and health. She is a feminist, environmental and political activist and editor of the London Green Party Website.
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