United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) — and especially its leader Nigel Farage — has been under enormous scrutiny in the run-up to the European elections next week, where UKIP is expected to score very well, embarrassing all the major parties and presaging some seats in Westminster next year. This party organizes all its policies around the idea that the UK’s departure from the European Union would improve the UK’s situation with minimum loss. (The Scottish National Party is pushing a similar line vis-à-vis the UK itself in its September referendum, but that’s another matter.) For better or worse (I think worse), this simple message has turned out to be a stroke of political genius, and UKIP is clearly trying to catch up with its fan base to appear to be a party ‘worthy of government’.
So how is UKIP doing? Probably as well as it can, which may well turn out to be good enough come polling time. Nigel Farage is certainly the best thing that has ever happened to UKIP. He is a master of the political emotions – he knows his brief, can stay on message, remain personable and roll with the punches, displaying just the right proportion of concession and indignation. He is right to think that the media is holding him and his party to a higher standard than the other parties. But this is to be expected. Outright dislike of UKIP’s policies aside, the media is doing this because UKIP leads with its extremism, whereas other parties wait until they’re in power to unleash, say, Michael Gove on the school system. Think of the interrogation that other successful party leaders would have received, had what turned out to be their flagship policies were known at election time.
Much has been made of yesterday’s radio interview with Farage by James O’Brien of LBC (London Broadcasting Company), a venerable commercial channel based on talk/news. No doubt O’Brien was on top form in pressing Farage on all sorts of tricky issues, in response to which Farage made the best fist of it. The most unfortunate part of the interview came when his communications director intervened to stop the proceedings, which ended up being the story covered in the newspapers today. Farage clearly did not want to end the interview, and frankly I’d sack the communications director for effectively implying that the event was a disaster. You can judge for yourself, but up to that point I’d say Farage was holding his own against someone who clearly was gunning for him.
Now let’s think about this from the standpoint of the sociology of media. Farage’s interrogator O’Brien benefitted greatly from four things: (1) He doesn’t have a national profile, and so one can’t very easily attribute prior motives, etc. that might have biased his treatment of Farage. (2) His personal manner is like that of the flat-footed detective who is simply wanting the facts, nothing more. (3) Commercial radio is generally more much rough-and-tumble and desultory than BBC stuff. (4) The interview took place at the end of a campaign, where Farage (and other candidates) said the same things over and over, and so there has been more time to think of incisive questions.
Now consider someone who does interrogate all the party leaders (and their mouthpieces) very incisively on a regular basis – regardless of where we are in the political cycle – yet doesn’t get nearly the same credit. I’m not talking about Newsnight’s Jeremy Paxman, but Andrew Neil of Daily Politics fame. For those old enough to remember, Neil was Rupert Murdoch’s boy at the Times during the Thatcher years and is generally known for a smart-ass, take no prisoners comic style of political commentary that can veer into the salacious. And there lies the problem. In a democratic polity, baggage can weigh one down. If you don’t share the same burdens as your viewers, they’d prefer you share no burdens at all so that they can project their fantasies about you – in the case of O’Brien, he becomes the’ voice of reason’ because he is the quintessential ‘man without qualities’.