Sunday 11 May 2014

Question Time and the UKIP problem

I'm a big fan of the BBC, and I don't think that they show much in the way of bias. In fact, I think that they generally do a good job of representing issues fairly, but I do think that they have to take a certain amount of responsibility for the surge in popularity of UKIP.

In the last six months, UKIP have been on BBC Question Time on more than one every four episodes (excluding a more Welsh specific one and a South African one), with six showings. And in the last five episodes alone, UKIP has been represented three times.

As we all know, Nigel Farage himself has been on a lot. In fact, in the last six months, he has equalled appearances  with Grant Shapps and Danny Alexander, who appear to have as empty a social diary as him*. In recent decades, the only guest that has ever had more appearances than him is Charles Kennedy. And Nigel's only one appearance behind Charles.

This is quite the record for a party that doesn't have any MPs. Parties that actually do have MPs like the Green Party have had a single appearance by Caroline Lucas (on a show that Nigel Farage was on). And the notoriously publicity-shy George Galloway has also had a single appearance in the last six months as well.

But the appearances aren't enough for UKIP. In an article earlier this year, Farage asked whether Question Time audiences are too hostile, suggesting that there's an unfair balance in the audience leaning to the left and suggesting that those that criticise may be plants. As anyone who saw last week's question time, when Charlie Bloom criticised Farage, using the context of far right parties and history to explain why he didn't 'have any time for you, sir', UKIP certainly do come in for some stick. And, if you check out his timeline on twitter, you'll see that there are plenty of UKIP supporters claiming that he's a plant as well.

But why am I concerned about how often UKIP are on Question Time? After all, when the BNP went on Question Time, overestimating the cuddle-ability of Nick Griffin, they pretty much died out soon afterwards.

The difficulty is that UKIP do a great job of appearing as if they're the underdogs, while doing their level best to appeal to the fear and hatred that permeate parts of our society.

They're basically very good at having their cake and eating it. Having members of the party that openly criticise gay marriage or refer to David Cameron as a 'gay loving nutcase', and saying that these don't reflect the views of the party, while also saying that the over-70s are uncomfortable with gays and gay marriage. Saying that it's not the kind of thing that they do, while making clear that they understand those who are worried about it.

It's the same thing with racism. Whether it's their members that refer to 'Bongo Bongo Land', or Farage supporting Jeremy Clarkson's use of the word 'nigger'** as being 'perhaps not quite going over" the line of being offensive. It's treated as simply being controversial or old-fashioned rather than being racist.

But then, racism is something that Nigel Farage doesn't appear to see a huge problem with. Whether it's his school teachers describing him as a racist or whether it's the multiple news reports from earlier in his career about the regularity with which he allegedly used words like 'nigger' and 'nig-nog', including when having meetings with BNP members. Or maybe his version of 'racism' is different to a lot of other people's. UKIP deny pretty much all of that, incidentally, or Farage disavows responsibility, playing it off essentially as schoolyard japes to get attention.

Of course, it's the over-65s that are the greatest supporters of UKIP and the most likely to move that way, which is part of why UKIP are doing their best to appeal to the more scared and resentful members of that generation. It also may be why they're going out of their way to appeal to the elements of that generation that may have more sexist, racist and homophobic attitudes, or at least don't get why things have changed so much, because in their day, it just wasn't offensive, don't you see? The fact that this age-group is also far more likely to vote at all just makes them all the more appealing.

The more that the party turns up on television, the more legitimised they become and the more popular they become. The more they get to portray the myth that they're a friendly, inclusive party.

But also, and I fall as foul of this as anyone, the more they rile people up. The more they get people watching and discussing and the more that shows like Question Time rank on twitter and the more column inches they get. But it's a vicious circle - the more they appear, the more they're discussed and the more relevant they seem to be, so the more they appear and the more they're discussed, and...

Some of this is presented as Farage being charismatic. I don't see it, personally. He's loud and laughs a lot, but he's actually very boring. He strikes me as the kind of guy you'd avoid in the office or the pubs that he's so very fond of being photographed in. But I do understand that he makes for good - or at least popular - television.

I just wish that Question Time, This Week, and the like weren't making their job so easy right now. Personally, I wish that The Green Party and the NHA party were getting more of that free publicity, in order to highlight areas I think are more important issues like the environment and the future of the NHS.

It's important to remember that discussion on the internet is only going to accomplish so much, whether it's blog posts like this one, twitter or facebook, as that's not the main audience that UKIP are aiming at. The best way to limit the damage that UKIP can do is to get out and vote. Every vote that isn't for them reduces the overall amount of share that they get.

* This is based on going through the last six months of guests on Question Time as recorded on the BBC website (which has incomplete information in the sum-ups) and Wikipedia.

** I went back and forward over whether to censor this on the blog or not. In the end, I decided that these are ugly words, and it's the ugliness that I want to highlight. If you feel I've misjudged this, I apologise.

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