Just how much media coverage does UKIP get?

With 25 appearances by Nigel Farage on Question Time and more than 23,000 press mentions, UKIP is attracting historically unprecedented levels of coverage for a minor party.

"Oh no, not Nigel again!" groaned some Question Time viewers last week as they sat down for the fourth time this year to hear the views of the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP). Nigel 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 like Paul Nuttall, Diane James and Patrick O'Flynn. 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. 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. But of course this may all be far more straightforward: Farage is a skilled, media-trained populist who contrasts sharply to an otherwise bland and robot-like political elite. It's only natural that journalists flock to an outsider who gives them good copy.

But this does raise an intriguing question: exactly how prominent are Farage and UKIP in British media? As part of our forthcoming book in 2014, Revolt on the Right, we used a well-established database (Nexis) to track the number of times UKIP and Farage are mentioned in UK-based newspapers. This is only a small part of the book, which analyses over 100,000 voters and includes interviews with key insiders to explain UKIP’s support and what it tells us about British politics. But it is a useful, 'quick and dirty' way of measuring a party’s profile across all newspapers. It does not account for the nature of this coverage (i.e. positive or negative), and does not include radio, television or social media. But given that print media continues to set much of the agenda in British politics, it remains a valuable yardstick. 

Figure 1

First, in Figure 1, we track the number of citations for UKIP and Farage from 2003, when UKIP was a largely unknown fringe party with only three MEPs, to November 2013, when it had become a serious force, tipped to win the 2014 European elections. This reveals how media interest in UKIP has surged, particularly since 2012. 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. Interest in Farage has risen even more steeply – his mentions more than doubled between 2011 and 2012, and have already quadrupled in 2013. It is likely this trend will continue into 2014, as Britain braces for European elections, and then into 2015 as journalists debate the possibility of a UKIP seat in Westminster and the possibility of a EU referendum.

Figure 2

Second, how does this picture compare to other insurgents? Figure 2 compares UKIP’s coverage to the Greens, Respect and British National Party. From 2005 until 2009, the picture was far less rosy for Nigel and his party: they attracted less attention than the Greens and were fighting in the 'media war' to move away from the BNP. But since 2011, the party has really come into its own, rapidly moving away from other minor competitors to achieve historically unprecedented levels of coverage.

Figure 3

It is a similar picture in Figure 3, which compares Farage‘s profile to that of Caroline Lucas, George Galloway and Nick Griffin. Until 2012, Farage was often eclipsed by Griffin and Galloway (though never Lucas). We can see how Galloway gains profile during the 2005 campaign and then after his by-election victory in Bradford in 2012, while Griffin peaks during his European breakthrough in 2009. Interestingly, Lucas does not attract an equivalent spike in coverage following her breakthrough into Westminster. In fact, in comparison she is nowhere to be seen. Yet since 2012, Farage has rocketed onto a new level, leaving behind other smaller party leaders who have managed to win representation in Westminster. Journalists clearly are not shaped by electoral reality.

We can also put this into a broader context. While his party is now regularly polling ahead of the Liberal Democrats, Farage, at least in terms of media profile, remains some way behind Nick Clegg, unsurprising given that the latter is in government and the Deputy Prime Minister. So far in 2013, Farage has been mentioned almost 9,000 times compared to almost 20,000 citations for Clegg. But he is closing the gap.

Figure 4

This brings us to our final point concerning the nature of UKIP’s coverage. As Figure 4 shows, UKIP is not only attracting historically unprecedented levels of interest, it is also now beginning to broaden out its 'media attack'. In previous years, the party was most often mentioned alongside the EU, which is unsurprising given its goals. But since 2011, the number of articles that mention UKIP alongside immigration has risen sharply, representing around 40% of its total coverage in 2013. 

This is not coincidental but reflects UKIP’s change of strategy since 2011, which we detail in the book. It is the first piece of evidence that UKIP are entrenching themselves at the centre of Britain’s ongoing debate over immigration and its effects, which given the approaching debate over migration from Bulgaria and Romania, and the fact that public concerns over immigration remain high, also looks set to continue. UKIP’s plan to expand its eurosceptic origins by targeting immigration is yielding dividends, as is Farage’s more aggressive media strategy. In interviews with us, those close to Farage often voiced anxiety about the impact of a relentless schedule on their leader’s health. Some complained how he often gives his personal number to journalists, and refuses to 'switch off'. The strategy may well be wearing Farage down, but it is also producing results. Whether his party can sustain this interest, and ensure it is strictly for positive reasons, remains to be seen.

Matthew Goodwin is Associate Professor at the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, and Associate Fellow at Chatham House. @GoodwinMJ

Robert Ford is a politics lecturer at the University of Manchester. @robfordmancs

UKIP leader Nigel Farage at the party's conference in London on 20 September 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder