Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage were notable by their absence from last week’s climate change debate on Channel 4 – not least because the broadcaster replaced them with huge, melting ice sculptures.
Somewhat less noticeable, but no less absent, was a party that has 10 more MPs than Farage’s Brexit Party and literally struck a deal with the Conservatives that allowed Theresa May back into Downing Street two years ago.
So where was Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)? Why hasn’t its leader Arlene Foster been invited to do an Andrew Neil interview when parties with far less influence in parliament have? Where have they been interviewed or had their manifesto and parliamentary record scrutinised?
The answer, it would seem, is: almost nowhere. The DUP has made just five media appearances during the general election campaign, despite the prospect of it still being a “powerbroker” in British politics.
Arlene Foster’s party represented 0.2% of all politicians identified in coverage, and featured in 0.4% of all election stories, according to an analysis by Loughborough University of the last four weeks.
The five appearances – out of 2,824 political representatives featuring in 1,843 items – included a 40-second clip on the BBC News at Ten as the DUP launched its manifesto on November 28. Channel 5 News and ITV’s 6.30pm bulletin also featured the unveiling of its policy platform. A Channel 4 News report from Belfast a day earlier included the party, too.
Loughborough University, which produces weekly reports on how the media is covering the campaign, samples the weekday content of the main national evening TV news programmes and the main news sections of all the national paid-for newspapers.
By contrast to the DUP, Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party featured more than 140 times, despite it seeming increasingly unlikely the upstart party will take a single seat at next week’s poll.
David Deacon and Dominic Wring, of the University of Loughborough’s Centre for Research in Communication and Culture, told HuffPost UK: “It is striking how Arlene Foster and her DUP colleagues, who were long presented as key power brokers in the Brexit process, have become forgotten figures in the reporting of this campaign.”
After the unexpected 2017 hung parliament election, the DUP and its 10 MPs overnight became powerful in Westminster, forging a confidence and supply agreement with Theresa May that propped up her minority government. Some polls have suggested Boris Johnson could be faced with cobbling together an alliance if he fails to secure a majority.
The fiercely conservative, anti-gay marriage party subsequently helped shape the Brexit narrative with its resistance to the Irish “backstop” that underpinned May’s doomed withdrawal agreement with Brussels, despite the then-PM being accused of handing the DUP “bribes” to get support.
Yet the scrutiny of the DUP in the national media since the start of November has been negligible. It has been noticeably absent from TV debates where leaders of minor parties, including Plaid Cymru and the Greens, have been included.
In a blog, the BBC’s head of newsgathering, Jonathan Munro said voters in Northern Ireland have a “different choice to make than elsewhere in the UK”.
He said: “The DUP have had a prominent role at Westminster recently – but when it comes to the actual ballot paper, they are primarily competing with Sinn Fein, the Ulster Unionist party, the SDLP and the Alliance Party rather than Conservatives, who have more limited presence in Northern Ireland, Labour and [the] Liberal Democrats.
“While they are all contesting seats for the same parliament, it remains a distinct electoral set-up, which means the Northern Ireland parties should – and do – debate each other; it wouldn’t be fair for just one of them to get UK-wide prominence [...] and including all of them would be disproportionate for the majority of viewers everywhere else in the UK.”
HuffPost UK has contacted the DUP over whether it was invited to take part in any debates or one-to-one interviews.
Media sampled by Loughborough University:
Television: Channel 4 News (7pm), Channel 5 News (6.30pm), BBC1 News at 10,
ITV1 News at 10, Sky News (10-10.30pm).
Press: The Guardian, The i, The Daily Telegraph, The Times, The Financial Times, The Daily Mail, The Daily Express, The Mirror, The Sun, The Star
All election-related news items in the television programmes were analysed. For the press, all election news found on the front page, the first two pages of the domestic news section, the first two pages of any specialist election section and the page containing and facing the papers’ leader editorials were included.