Glasgow, United Kingdom: For much of Britain, it was almost a case of they came, they saw, they conquered. Over a week after the right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP) placed first in the country‘s European parliamentary election, the political tremors have yet to subside.
The polls saw the UKIP winning 24 seats in the European Parliament, compared to Labour‘s 20 and the ruling Conservatives’ 19.
In a year when the modern British political system is already facing its greatest ever test in September‘s Scottish independence referendum, the victory for the anti-EU UKIP heralded the party‘s arrival as a new force in British politics – and put the role of the country‘s mainstream media under scrutiny.
As UKIP’s victory became apparent, Scotland‘s first minister, Alex Salmond – the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) government in Edinburgh – spoke to the BBC of his then-fading hope to “freeze UKIP out of Scotland”. Although the UKIP only came in fourth place in Scotland, the party’s achievement was, suggested Salmond, largely the BBC‘s fault.
“We‘ve been doing an analysis of BBC broadcasting in Scotland over this month, and there‘ve been four times as many broadcasts about UKIP as about the SNP,“ he told the BBC‘s election night programme. “Star Trek the original series used to have a phrase, ‘Beam me up, Scotty!’ UKIP is a party that gets beamed into Scotland courtesy of the BBC.“
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UKIP‘s success in attracting more than four million votes to its anti-EU cause was met with indignation by many rival political activists, who, accusing the right-wing party of harbouring a racist agenda, also pointed the finger at the BBC and other mainstream media outlets for paying too much attention to a party that has no representation at Westminster.
“We tracked UKIP citations in the media from the beginning of 2013 until last month, and what was clear was that UKIP was receiving an ever-growing amount of interest,“ said Matthew Goodwin, an associate professor in the school of politics and international relations at England‘s University of Nottingham. “The tone of coverage really shifted from being unclear about what was behind [the] UKIP‘s rise to, secondly, quite an explicitly hostile response to the party and focusing almost completely on presumed links between UKIP and racism to where we are today – the third stage of the debate – and that is thinking more seriously about the roots of UKIP‘s appeal.“
The consequences of this have been profound, say many political commentators. Gerry Hassan told Al Jazeera that the mainstream media‘s exposure of the UKIP “framed and made permissible … a right-wing ratchet effect of British politics“.
“What it meant was that it made us go down chasing not a caricatured bigoted voter, but a caricatured populist problematic superficial politics that is looking for easy answers and easy scapegoats,“ states the research fellow in cultural policy at the University of the West of Scotland.
Hassan says that in doing so, the mainstream media found in UKIP the perfect opportunity “to fill a void“ in British politics. “Certainly, for some of the mainstream newspapers, UKIP filled a long-term agenda – euroscepticism, the loss of a certain Britain and other anxieties,“ he said, contending that the coverage of UKIP was “a defining moment in our politics and our media“.
Alex Massie, a blogger for the London-based Spectator, told Al Jazeera that he has little sympathy for the argument that the media over-covered the UKIP.
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“Was the amount of coverage given to UKIP disproportionate? Well, in one sense, yes you could see how that was the case,“ said Massie. But, he added, “news is by definition stuff that hasn‘t happened before, and UKIP‘s rise was the new dramatic thing …and so from that perspective it would have been an odd newspaper or an odd television broadcaster that didn‘t cover UKIP extravagantly. Labour versus the Conservatives is a familiar story – UKIP throwing not just a spanner, but every other kind of garage equipment into the works is a news story. Therefore, it‘s catnip for journalists.“
But, did the BBC itself, as the UK‘s public service broadcaster, go over the top with its coverage of UKIP, as its many detractors have maintained? No, said Goodwin.
“I don‘t agree that they‘ve necessarily had too much publicity,” said the co-author of Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain. “They‘ve just won support from 4.3 million voters, attracted over 27 percent of the vote and are clearly reflecting deep and long-term trends within our society, so I think it‘s better we debate those now than to try to knock them off our television screens.“
Nevertheless, Goodwin added that the coverage of UKIP’s European parliament campaign, much of which focused on the party‘s alleged racist and xenophobic credentials, should give pause for thought across the British media sphere.
“I think the members of the media should sit down and think through whether it‘s time for a more constructive response, and whether that‘s how you deal with a new political party,” said Goodwin. “Is it perhaps time now to start asking questions … that go beyond ‘Is UKIP racist or not?‘ and start to think through some of those deeper questions, like why its voters are feeling so disillusioned?“
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