Suzanne Evans addresses the party faithful. Photo:Getty
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Ukip don't deserve their media prominence. Here's the proof

Which came first, the breakthrough or the BBC appearances? An academic suggests that Ukip are getting a helping hand from the press.

Media elites suggest that Ukip deserves high levels of media coverage on account of public support for the party. But what if support for Ukip is generated by disproportionate media coverage in the first place? A look at the evidence raises serious questions about the media’s fascination with Ukip.

It is commonly suggested by critics as well as politicians that the media is disproportionately fascinated by Ukip. This is uncontroversial in the sense that the quantity of Ukip’s media coverage is simply much greater than the coverage of other small parties on the right as well as the left. But the stated position of UK media regulator Ofcom and the BBC suggests that UKIP deserves special attention relative to other small parties on account of trends in public support for the party.

There is a crucial problem with the argument that Ukip deserves high levels of media coverage on account of public support for the party. If current levels of public support for Ukip are partially driven by previously disproportionate media coverage, statements by Ofcom and BBC notwithstanding, current privileges such as inclusion in the television debates may not be innocently responsive to public support for Ukip but perhaps only the most recent instance of how the media actively props up that public support. So which one is it? Is the media’s coverage of Ukip simply a function of previous and current public support, or is current public support an artifict of past media coverage, or both?

To explore this question more rigorously, I gathered monthly polling data measuring public support for Ukip and a count of national newspaper reports mentioning Ukip for every month since the beginning of 2004. The polling data is from Ipsos-MORI and the newspaper data is from the database Nexis. While I find some evidence that media coverage may be partially driven by public support for Ukip, I also find evidence that media coverage may independently generate some portion of Ukip’s public support. In other words, there may be some justification to statements by Ofcom and BBC that treatment of Ukip is justified by public support for the party, but this rationale for privileging of Ukip in the media may be ultimately unjustified because previously disproportionate media fascination with Ukip may have played a crucial role in current levels of public support. Preliminary statistical research currently underway is also consistent with this latter argument.

In the history of Ukip, it is possible to identify at least two periods of media coverage which are not justified by dynamics of public support, but which may have helped generate subsequent increases in public support.

First, the data reveal that Ukip’s first large increase in public support, from November 2012 to April 2013, is preceded by an increase in media coverage not itself warranted by changes in public support. From February to June 2012, public support increases from only 2% to 6%, and media coverage increases proportionately and closely behind. Then coverage and support decrease, though to slightly higher levels than before. So far, this is as we would expect if the quantity of media coverage responds to changes in public support. Also, notably, this small spike in support is historically unremarkable; it is similarly sized to Ukip’s previous, short-lived spikes in public support, and media coverage rises and falls with it just as it had during the previous spikes in support.

What is unique about this cycle of support and coverage begins in August 2012. In the next four months, media coverage spikes from 110 articles in August to 948 articles in November, the highest amount of coverage Ukip had ever received in one month. This increase in media coverage occurrs at a time when a historically unremarkable spike in support appears to be on its equally unremarkable downward trajectory, suggesting nothing more than the typical tendency for Ukip’s short-run spikes to equilibrate back to an otherwise quite low baseline level. While it is impossible to prove that this particular increase in coverage caused the large increase in support following it, the timing seems more consistent with this interpretation than the interpretation that public support is driving media coverage. Of course, both may very well be true but nonetheless this is a strong example of exceptional media coverage not simply reducible to dynamics of public support.

Second, despite dramatically and durably decreasing public support from April to November 2013, media coverage increases briefly from July to September before beginning its largest climb to date in October 2013. It is only after this extraordinary media surge begins in October that public support turns upward again. The increase in public support observed from November 2013 until April 2014 is closely contemporaneous with the media increase, and the peak of the media increase does follow the peak of the increase in support, which is consistent with the argument that the intensity of media coverage responds to changes in public support. But similar to the first example, the data here suggest that the real prime mover in the November 2013 upturn of public support may be the media’s persistent fascination with Ukip despite the large secular decline in support from April to November 2013.

It is also worth noting that the most intense month of media coverage in Ukip’s history, the 3,719 articles mentioning Ukip in May 2014, cannot be explained by trends in public support because the rise in support which this media increase corresponds to is merely a return to the level of April 2013. The extra 727 articles in May 2014 relative to May 2013 is even harder to explain with public support because the first increase of Ukip support to this level should be much more newsworthy in principle than the second time around. Finally, the exceptionally intense media coverage of October 2014 does appear to track the fluctations in support at that time, but it is very hard to resist the interpretation that the media here is questionably over-responsive to changes in public support: 3,368 articles in one month cannot be accounted for by the hardly remarkable news story that public support has revolved around 13% for the previous 7 months.

In summary, at least two crucial moments in the history of Ukip appear inconsistent with the self-defense of media elites that the privileging of Ukip in the media is only based on dynamics of public support. And although no analysis of this data can prove that media coverage of Ukip has driven public support to its current levels, the data are consistent with the argument that current levels of Ukip support have been driven partially by past levels of disproportionate media coverage which cannot in turn be explained by public support.

It is disingenuous of Ofcom and BBC to give Ukip media privileges on the basis of public support when the data suggest that earlier rounds of disproportionate media attention are likely to be one crucial driver of current Ukip support. More importantly, if the data presented here are any guide, reporters covering Ukip may want to question the political implications of their fascination.

Justin Murphy is Assistant Professor in Politics and International Relations at University of Southampton. He tweets as @jmrphy.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.