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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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage