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.

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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR