Since the last general election, UKIP has made a number of breakthroughs – in local elections, by-elections and the opinion polls. In a fascinating article for the New Statesman, Matthew Goodwin and Rob Ford look at another important breakthrough for Nigel Farage and his followers – UKIP’s media breakthrough.

Using the Nexis database, Goodwin and his colleagues have tracked the number of print media mentions for UKIP and its leader:

“In 2003, the party was not even mentioned 600 times; ten years later it was flagged more than 23,000 times (and only until November). Similarly, in 2003, Farage was barely visible with only 36 mentions, but 10 years later this had rocketed to over 8,000.

“Clearly much of this marks a response to UKIP’s growth in the polls. But whereas UKIP enjoyed record gains in 2004 and 2009, the media attention it won after these breakthroughs is dwarfed by the wave of coverage it has received in the past two years. In 2012, UKIP mentions reached a record high of over 10,000, but so far in 2013 this figure has already more than doubled again, and with two months of the year still left to run.”

Some people wonder if all this attention is getting a little excessive:

“‘Oh no, not Nigel again!’ groaned some Question Time viewers last week as they sat down for the fourth time this year to hear [his] views… Farage has appeared on the show no less than 25 times, 15 of which have come since 2009, while in the past four years, a further six slots have gone to other Ukippers… This means that since 2009, UKIP spokespersons have sat on the panel on 21 occasions, almost double the number for the Greens (11) and more than double the number for Respect (10).”

“Unsurprisingly, these figures have led some to argue that Farage receives a level of publicity that is not only disproportionate to his party’s actual strength, but also exceeds that given to other insurgents who have achieved what UKIP has not: a seat in Westminster.”

Amusingly, there are those who suspect a rightwing conspiracy:

“Some go further, suggesting that parts of the media have a vested interest in supplying UKIP with the ‘oxygen of publicity’ so as to pile pressure on David Cameron and trigger a rightward turn on issues like the EU, immigration and gay marriage.”

One has doubt whether the BBC producers of Question Time are in on this fiendish plot. Indeed, given what UKIP could do to David Cameron’s chances at the next general election, the people with the greatest interest in promoting Farage are Ed Miliband and anybody who wants to stop the in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.

Leaving aside the conspiracy theories, there is a genuinely important issue here: in an era when minor parties can have a major impact, who gets to decide which ones get the oxygen of publicity?

In the run-up to the 1999 European elections, the BBC and other sections of the media made a big thing of the short-lived Pro-Euro Conservative Party – which was portrayed as a serious challenge to William Hague. When the actual results came in, the PECP won just 1.4 per cent of the vote and no MEPs, while the then largely ignored UKIP won 7 per cent of the vote and three MEPs. It was a lesson in the need to base coverage on an objective measure of popular support.

The difficulty is in choosing a suitable metric. Unlike the Green Party, UKIP has no MPs – but it has many more MEPs and councillors. Then again, the Greens run a major council (badly) – whereas UKIP, despite recent advances, does not. And what about the opinion polls? How should a sudden surge of support for a particular party be weighed against the number of elected representatives that it has already?

Journalists should be free to reach their own editorial decisions. (The Daily Telegraph has today turned the millionaire Paul Syke’s decision to give more to UKIP into its front page splash.)  But there is one public arena where some proper rules are required: televised debates between party leaders during a general election campaign. As we saw in 2010, these have the potential to change the course of events. The decision about who to include (and exclude) is of major electoral – and, therefore, constitutional – significance.

If, in 2015, UKIP is the third party in the opinion polls, but Farage finds himself watching Nick Clegg from the sidelines, then he will have every right to cry foul.