Interpreting UKIP’s political earthquake

Posted By Dr Stephen Cushion and Professor Richard Sambrook

  • How did broadcasters cover the local and European elections?
  • Was Nigel Farage given excessive airtime?
  • And if he was, then did the coverage help the UKIP cause?

The media’s coverage of UKIP – and in particular its leader Nigel Farage – in the recent EU and local elections has been criticised as excessive. In particular, as UKIP and its leader received proportionally more coverage than the other mainstream political parties and their respective leaders, some have questioned whether the BBC and other broadcasters breached their ‘due impartiality’ requirements and contributed to UKIP’s electoral success.

New content analysis by Cardiff University of the four main terrestrial early evening bulletins – BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 – during the election campaign reveals a more complex picture of coverage. We analysed Channel 5 at 5pm, BBC TV at 6pm, ITV at 6.30pm and Channel 4 at 7pm and compared campaign coverage with 2009.

There were four discernible trends. First, there was an overall increase in election reporting compared to 2009, with all broadcasters covering more campaign news. Secondly, almost all broadcasters reported UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage to a greater extent than other party leaders. But far from campaign coverage being sympathetic to UKIP, the party were not given an easy ride by broadcasters, since their policies and candidates were subjected to much journalistic scrutiny. Finally, focus on UKIP and its EU campaign overshadowed the local elections.

More visible campaign

While the proportion of people voting remained the same as the last local and EU elections – about a third of the population – our study shows television news coverage more than doubled. 5% of all news was devoted to the campaign in 2009 three weeks prior to election day, but in 2014 the UK’s terrestrial evening bulletins dedicated 11% of airtime. The BBC and Channel 4 were most committed to reporting the elections – about 12% of their total airtime – a higher share than ITV (8%). The elections even excited the lighter agenda of Channel 5 – who barely covered the election in 2009 – since the 5pm bulletin almost tripled its airtime of the campaigns (5%). So what explained the more visible election campaign on evening bulletins in 2014? Our extended 5 week analysis explains.

UKIP bias?

The rise of UKIP was the dominant narrative of campaign coverage. The party’s claim to be causing a “political earthquake” clearly excited editors and journalists, but did – as has been alleged – this amount to a clear bias in favour of UKIP?

Our findings paint a mixed picture. In terms of soundbites, UKIP were sourced to a greater extent – 25 in total – than other parties, with the Tories on 19 and Labour and Liberal Democrats on 16. The biggest losers were the Greens, with just five soundbites. Ofcom’s decision to elevate UKIP’s status to a “major party” ( ) – meaning broadcasters should cover them to the same extent as the three main established parties – meant the Greens found it difficult to gain airtime. But while ITV and Channel 4 featured UKIP soundbites the most over the campaign, the BBC and Channel 5 did not.

Of the party leaders, UKIP’s Farage had the most appearances on all broadcasters except Channel 5. While this amounted to more airtime than the other leaders on BBC and ITV bulletins, it did not on Channel 4 and Channel 5 – largely because Farage was excluded by both in their extended interviews with party leaders. In other words, Farage had more appearances on TV screens over the campaign, but these were mostly in short soundbites. If there was a Farage bias it is arguably most on display in imagebites, where politicians appear on screen but are not necessarily heard. UKIP had the most imagebite appearances overall, although not on BBC or Channel 5. Of the party leaders, Farage was the most pictured politician and gained most airtime. Images of Farage – typically with a beer in one hand and cigarette in the other – became a familiar backdrop in campaign coverage. Once again, the Greens appeared least, with leader Natalie Bennett’s image barely seen over the campaign. This could be an issue for the regulators at next year’s General Election. The Greens have a sitting MP – UKIP have none – but broadcasters are not obliged to reflect the party’s views to the same degree.

UKIP under fire

On the face of it, the dominance of UKIP sound and imagebites in campaign coverage could be interpreted as bias, with broadcasters acting as Farage’s mouthpiece. But when UKIP, its candidates or even Farage’s appearances are more closely examined, the majority of them featured either the party or its leader under attack or being challenged by journalists.

Nick Robinson’s robust questioning of Farage at the party’s campaign launch is a case in point, with the BBC’s political editor persistently asking whether it was right he should employ his wife – a German – as his assistant given UKIP’s immigration policy. Although Farage was the most visible politician on TV during the campaign, his appearances were not always in the most favourable light. For example, when a Channel 4 journalist repeatedly asked “Did you bottle it, did you bottle it”, after the UKIP leader decided not to stand in a by-election.

After a hostile interview with James O’Brien of LBC, Farage’s final week of the campaign saw the UKIP leader under most pressure. Farage’s comments about not wanting to live next to Romanians, for instance, led to some awkward questions the UKIP leader struggled to answer. BBC vox pops also revealed – just days before the election – members of the public could not name a single UKIP policy beyond their hard line stance on immigration. In other words, UKIP might have set the campaign agenda on immigration, but that policy was subject to considerable journalistic scrutiny and dominated their campaign.

Of course, the old adage “all publicity is good publicity” might be relevant when evaluating UKIP’s coverage. After all, the party topped the EU election poll irrespective of all this scrutiny. Moreover, such coverage might have played into UKIP’s anti-establishment appeal. But it would be hard to lay the blame squarely on broadcasters after Ofcom’s ruling about granting UKIP equal status.

Where the journalistic tone could have been more measured was in interpreting UKIP’s post-electoral success. Given just a third of people voted in the EU election and that the party gained less than a couple of hundred council seats – compared to over 2000 for Labour – the “earthquake” caused by UKIP was arguably lower on the richter scale than portrayed.

Downsizing the local election?

Since most broadcasters’ attention was on the rise of UKIP – a party recognised for its anti-EU agenda – our research reveals the local elections were overshadowed by the focus on the European campaign. When it was possible to disentangle a local from an EU story, we found – three weeks prior to Election Day – the EU campaign generated 10 times more airtime than the local election. This represents far more time dedicated to reporting just the EU campaign compared to 2009 – more than double the amount – suggesting the 2014 elections were far more Europeanised.

However, overshadowing both the local and EU campaign in 2014 was the forthcoming general election. For it was not just UKIP’s success in the EU elections that captured the attention of broadcasters, it was the possible political earthquake Farage would make in 2015 that really excited broadcasters.

This post was originally published by and the research was carried out by Richard Thomas and Oliver Ellis at Cardiff University.