THE BLOG

Ofcom's Ukip Decision Will Shape, Rather Than Reflect, Public Opinion

06/03/2014 17:31 GMT | Updated 06/05/2014 10:59 BST

For a political party operating in the age of the ubiquitous media giant, getting your message on to the airwaves can elevate you from rank outsider to political rank-and-file. It means exposure for your brand, policies and framing and, most importantly, it confers mainstream acceptance. When you're watching a political party broadcast on the BBC the whole context speaks of legitimacy. After all, if you can't trust Auntie, who can you trust?

This is why Ofcom's decision to declare Ukip a "major" party for the upcoming European Elections - doubling the number of elections broadcasts they will be entitled to and increasing their share of news coverage - should not be taken lightly. For a party once famously declared by David Cameron to be a bunch of "fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists" this is a big step. It's also a giant leap for political power-play in Britain.

In announcing their decision Ofcom stated that Ukip's electoral performance in the past two European Elections demonstrates that they represent a growing segment of public opinion and that ought to be reflected in their media coverage.

The media's own watchdog are, though, modestly underplaying the role that the press can play in influencing public opinion and falsely creating a black and white split between television's role in "reflecting" and "influencing" public opinion. Whenever a news broadcast is made the images, language and evidence used helps to create a frame. Some views make it inside the frame, others stand outside. Broadcasters make a conscious editorial decision and those decisions help to shape how we - the consumers - view the world. In declaring Ukip to be a "major" party, Ofcom is doing more than acting as a passive mirror on reality.

Given that, it's worth questioning how fair the Ofcom decision is and what it means for parties like the Green Party who were excluded from this round of media patronage. Ukip's polling support has grown - no doubts there. They came third in the 2004 European elections and second in 2009 with 17% of the vote. Their performance in General Elections has been far more modest however - growing from 0.01% in 1992 to 3% in 2010. It is clear, therefore, that if Ukip are "representative" it is only in the context of an election which one-third of the public turnout to vote for and which has been fought on images Ukip have traditionally been strong on - Europe and migration.

Ukip's troop of MEPs is not exactly the most representative bunch, either. Of the nine that they have elected all are white, middle-aged men. One has a beard. Ukip's right to speak for England - let alone Britain - is a fragile one and yet theirs are the views that we will see broadcast with enthusiasm in the lead-up to the May elections. If they reflect anything it is the political institution that they so forcibly decry. They mirror the current status of parliament as a white gentleman's club - precisely what years of campaigning from women and ethnic minority organisations have tried to upend. Ofcom's decision risks taking us backwards, not forwards.

It is not just the demographics of their politicians that put them at odds with an increasingly diverse and broad-minded British public. Ukip members have stated that bad weather is caused by gay people, that Muslims should have to sign a peace-pact in order to live in the UK, and they have branded women as sluts. We've witnessed too many instances of such prejudice for it to be an isolated incident but it this kind of xenophobic, sexist and homophobic venom that we want to be fighting against - not legitimising. They have also in writing officially stated that they do not believe in man-made climate change. Or, to put it another way, they rebuke the conclusions of 99% of peer-reviewed scientific papers ever produced on the subject. We already have to put up with an Environment Secretary that is dangerously and irresponsibly anti-science. We don't need a whole party of Patersons.

Which makes it all seem rather strange that the Green Party has not been given the same boost from Ofcom. The party has an MP. It is the party working hardest to tackle the prescient matter of climate change, rather than belittle those who care so greatly about this important cause. What's more, it is representative of public opinion on a smorgasbord of issues from renationalising industries, making the minimum wage a living wage, and keeping our NHS public. Although Ofcom's ruling has now been made the next battle will be over which leaders are given the right to appear in next year's televised debates - and the Greens will be working hard to ensure their views are not locked out in favour of the Ukip lobby.