For the supporters of Ukip, there is such thing as bad publicity: the national media is out-to-get their party. That’s what Nigel Farage insists, the members of Ukip argue, and even what most of the population believe, according to the most recent YouGov survey.
It may well be that this bias does exist, given the scale of media coverage surrounding Ukip and how Ofcom – the broadcast regulator – is now investigating Channel 4 after over 1000 complaints flooded in for their mockumentary Ukip: The First 100 Days.
But for professor of political science William Jennings, it’s not clear that this media prejudice exists. “A lot of the attention to the party is arguably because Ukip is a new political force, so the media is trying to understand them, and explore what they mean for British politics.”
There is, he says, a perception among Ukip supporters that the media is against them, and more generally that the political class and media will do anything to stop the Ukip charge. “But this is an inherent feature of populist parties, that the rules are stacked against them.”
One grass roots supporter, Thomas Evans, does not believe it is just a perception: “There is a complete lack of even-handedness expressed to all parties. There are numerous examples of councillors from other parties who have made outrageous statements, only for that story not to have been reported the national media, as it would have been if Ukip.”
His, and many of his colleagues, main concern is that mainstream media are trying to portray Ukip as a party inundated with questionable individuals, “when in reality other representatives of other parties are making in many cases more serious comments and actions and these issues are going completely unreported in the mainstream media or reflected on in the same way as they would have been had it been Ukip.”
He isn’t completely wrong. In 2014, Labour councillor Gurpal Virdi was taken to court for indecently assaulting a young boy, which was only picked up by the local media and The Mirror. Later in 2014, a Liberal Democrat councillor for Skye, by the name of Drew Millar, resigned after being accused of sharing material from the far-right group Britain First on Facebook. The BBC and local northern press were the only media to report on this.
In January this year, Norwich City Labour councillor Deborah Gihawi quit her party after a race row. This was only reported up the Norfolk press. In Hampshire, a Conservative councillor and deputy mayor Michael Thierry compared flood prevention action to a ‘n***** in a woodpile’ at a council meeting. He is still serving, and the Daily Mail was the only national press to cover this.
This stands in contrast to the coverage of racist comments made by ex-Ukip councillor Roxanne Duncan, only two weeks later. Nonetheless, comments like these or those made by a Ukip councillor about how gay marriage legislation led to flooding, are different, says Professor Stephen Fielding, Director of the Centre for British Politics: “While comments made by all parties should be evenly scrutinised, I don’t think there is a media bias; I think if Labour or Conservative candidates councillors or whoever were saying some of the things that some of these Ukip candidates have been saying, they would be called out too.”
It, therefore, is not that the media is trying to undermine Ukip, but that the party is vulnerable because it is open in its views. Members have political opinions we are not used to being expressed in the mainstream, so when they are expressed they are picked up, says Professor Fielding.
The media is clearly fascinated with Ukip, and maybe gives them undue attention. “Arguably this has not done the party any harm. However, they are also very ill-disciplined and do not have the kind of resources that the major parties do to check who their candidates and supporters are, and what they are posting on social media,” says Dr. Nick Anstead, who specialises in political communication at the London School of Economics.
Of course, Ukip politicians have not been politically schooled. Professor Fielding believes this is one reason why they are focussed on. “They haven’t been educated as part of a party culture. I’m sure there’s a lot of people in the Labour, Conservative, Liberal party that have got slightly bizarre or eccentric views but they know not to express them in those public domains.”
This lack of education in their candidates and how they are selected could be the cause of a heavy press spotlight. “It may be the case that Ukip has endured more controversies about candidates because as a party organisation it has grown rapidly due to its success in a short space of time,” says Professor Jennings, “and as such doesn’t have the same procedures in place for vetting candidates that much more established parties do.”
In any case, Ukip seem reasonably impervious to scandals and negative stories, says Dr. Anstead. This is probably because they can spin these types of events as fitting into a wider pattern to the “political establishment – major parties and media – trying to rubbish them and attack them.”
Maybe Ukip should not be complaining about this either way. As Professor Jennings says, “Ukip benefited from this curiosity early on, so it’s a bit inconsistent to now call it bias.” At this time last year there were plenty of people saying Ukip was getting more than its fair share of positive representation, with people in the Labour party and on the left complaining about the amount of time Nigel Farage and Ukip were getting for stories about them.
So “it cuts both ways,” says Professor Fielding, “Ukip was an outsider, a new party tapping in to support that hadn’t been articulated in the same way, and doing quite well – uniquely well in elections. It was getting disproportionate coverage for that reason. So you have to take the rough with the smooth.”