UKIP’s relationship with the media is a strange thing. In large part, their poll ratings and image are a media creation, delivered to our breakfast tables and TV screens by journalists seeking something interesting and different. At the same time, UKIPers themselves denounce the “mainstream media” (definition: anyone who criticises them) as the running dogs of “the LibLabCon political elite”, and revel in each negative report as an affirmation of their success in irking both groups.
Despite their protestations, until recently the party got quite an easy ride of things. Farage’s iconic pose, propping up the bar, is in the minds of the electorate because photographers and producers put it there. Several elements of the loathed “mainstream media” not only covered them, but flirted with UKIP in their editorials.
There are no prizes for noticing that has changed. What garners most attention from those bedecked in purple and yellow is the negative news reporting – often of candidates or donors who have said or done something unpleasant. Given that it’s the fruit of their own behaviour, and a natural consequence of the greater scrutiny attracted as they rise in the polls, that’s to be expected, though. Far more interesting is the shift in editorial lines.
The change in the approach of The Times and The Sun are particularly notable. The former went from being broadly neutral to running a clear campaign of criticism, while the latter ditched previous hints that UKIP might be natural allies and instead now runs scathing Sun Says leader columns. Here’s a recent example from the weekend:
‘Nigel Farage was challenged yesterday over whether Ukip is racist. He put a gun to his temple and fired.
The dictionary definition is judging another race to be inferior because of a prejudice that all its members have the same characteristics.
Farage told a radio interviewer people would be worried if a group of Romanians moved in next door.
Asked what the difference would be between them and some Germans, Farage, whose wife is German, said: “You know what the difference is.”
This is racism, pure and simple: Romanians, he is suggesting, are criminals to be feared.
Farage is an affable bloke holding together a party that shares many of The Sun’s concerns on Europe but contains more than its fair share of racists and homophobes.
It is now no longer credible for him to claim every criticism of his party is “the political class clubbing together, using their mates in the media, to stop the Ukip charge”.
It is not racist to worry about the impact of millions of migrants on Britain, as we have argued for years.
It IS racist to smear Romanians for being Romanian.
Nigel Farage, Ukip leader, did just that.’
That’s tough language, even for The Sun. But any UKIP loyalist dismissing it as a typical LibLabCon/EUSSR/metropolitan elite stitch-up would be dangerously wrong.
What’s happening is more nuanced – and should be much more troubling for the insurgents, if only they realised it.
The Sun makes no attempt to hide that it “shares many…concerns on Europe” with UKIP – indeed, I suspect some of their early flirtation was based on fellow-feeling between them and a party which claims to represent no nonsense, decent patriotism. If the paper is coming down so hard on Farage now it isn’t because it has suddenly become part of the Islington tofu-munching elite. It’s because a fundamental difference has emerged between the party and the paper.
In essence, as newspapers identify more with the values of their readers than tribal political allegiances, The Sun feels itself to be the voice of decent middle Britain. That means they want their pints and petrol cheap, their government to be in Westminster not Brussels and the winning teams to be England and the British Army. They have a sense of humour, dislike political correctness and can’t stand meddlesome busybodies.
UKIP capitalised on that common ground initially – but it has now pushed its message into topics which clash with the newspaper’s values. The Sun‘s middle Britain holds valid concerns about immigration, but it doesn’t smear entire peoples as undesirables. Hence this strong backlash against Farage’s famous “you know the difference” interview.
This is just one part of a wider political problem the UKIPers face. Their rise from 5 per cent of the vote to 15 per cent has come swiftly, even relatively easily. They assume the next 15 per cent will be just as easy to win over, and have therefore launched into doing so with brazen messages about foreigners coming after your jobs, Romanians moving next door and so on.
That may deliver them the 30 per cent or more that they want on Thursday, but they appear not to have considered the impact it has on the remaining 70 per cent of the electorate. Taking the quick route to gathering some easier votes may put others off.
This is one explanation of the Farage paradox – the trend that shows the ‘Out of the EU’ vote falling in the polls even as UKIP’s numbers rise. It seems Farage’s pitch to his core, focused on Romanians, is unnerving the mainstream majority, who are naturally eurosceptic but fearful of being associated with xenophobia.
I saw it in action at Lord Ashcroft’s recent mass focus group. When the hardcore anti-EU table stood up to present their conclusions (“If the EU was a car it would be a bossy German in a BMW or a Romanian in a donkey cart”), the waverers (“Brussels costs loads of money but I need reassuring about trade”) visibly cringed, promptly watering down their scepticism. As I wrote at the time:
“…arguments which appeal to those who already agree with you may even deter those you need to win over.”
The Sun hates racism, hence its immediate response to the LBC interview – but it also resents the idea that Farage might tar its wider, perfectly reasonable, world-view by association. Those of us who want to leave the EU should feel similarly about UKIP’s attempts to link opposing rule from Brussels with disliking foreigners – by doing so they may win some more votes, but they make an eventual referendum victory much harder to achieve.
The current row, and the election results later this week, will inevitably reignite the perennial debate about the influence of the media on voters. As we studied years ago in A Level Politics, was it ‘The Sun wot won it”, or do papers just follow voters’ views in order to appeal to what they already think? As we all wondered in 2010, did the (often ludicrous) attacks on Nick Clegg after his bounce from the TV debates really hurt his eventual performance on polling day?
Should UKIP do well this week, as they almost certainly will, we’ll be told that the power of the papers is dead. The mainstream media threw the kitchen sink at the insurgents and it didn’t work. The metropolitan elite have been rumbled.
If Farage’s fans do draw that conclusion, they will be making quite a serious mistake.
For a start, the true impact of the last few days’ coverage will be artificially muted by the fact that many people have already sent off their postal votes. How many people might have been deterred by the last few days, but had already put their cross in the UKIP box?
More dangerously, UKIP appear to be adopting the attitude that all criticism should be embraced and celebrated as a sign of their success – a view normally expressed as “If you’re getting flak, you’re over the target”. This is a dangerous form of hubris. As well as leading them to ignore the inherent problem of the Farage paradox, and the harm they do to the Better Off Out cause, it will one day cause them to embrace a scandal when they should just acknowledge they’ve got it wrong and apologise.
Voters, like newspapers, can drop heroes just as fast as they take them up – the wheel of fortune doesn’t just lift its riders ever higher.