The election calls for a more open media attitude
This EU election pantomime is proving to be far more interesting and fun than previous shows. We had the gripping on-screen encounter between the jolly and colourful Mr Farage and the serious, politically correct Mr Clegg, the Eurosceptic versus the Europhile, and surprisingly the former ‘kippered’ the latter, according to the TV polls and media comment. This really was quite a shock and it signalled worry for the mainstream parties, as if a taboo or convention had been broken, a rather embarrassing uncle had gatecrashed a respectable garden party, drinking beer not Pimms!
UKIP has subsequently surged up the polls to the point where polling data, and that of course is to be distinguished very carefully from the real poll itself, put it ahead of the other parties.
UKIP wishes to withdraw the UK from the EU for many reasons, whereas the three main parties are keen to stay in, including David Cameron who would campaign in favour of membership in a referendum. One argument for quitting the EU is the issue of national open borders and rights to migrate across the EU. This is a legitimate issue to debate, it affects other policies such as housing need, health and education provision, for example. And UKIP does offer a voice to the Mrs Duffy type of blue-collar voter fed up with the scale of migration into her town, and branded a bigot by Gordon Brown for daring to air her concern. She now has a party that will take her seriously.
But the UKIP poster campaign making the point about EU migration flows has been repeatedly attacked as racist, and that has unfortunately set the tone of the ‘debate’. As Jeremy Seabrook’s fascinating article in the Guardian put it, the media have not been able to neutralise UKIP’s appeal: “The dominant political parties and the mainstream media collusively concerted the attack on Ukip. Never has the management of what is somewhat hyperbolically called ‘the clash of ideas’ conducted by the opinion-formers and gatekeepers of debate, been so clear. Rarely have the tactics to maintain argument within acceptable bounds been more obvious.” Seabrook’s article really should be read by the media commentators, the major opinion formers and ‘gatekeepers’ of debate: he says that Farage has managed to keep his show on the road, and the concerted efforts to stop it have bounced off, the public does not ‘buy’ the criticism, it regards it as part of the ‘establishment’ gatekeeping exercise. Whatever the result of this election, that is a change in how the public regards the ‘consensus’ of politically correct cultural control.
It is sad that ‘racism’ and not policies such as HS2, nurse training, tax, energy, etc, are discussed. But, for Seabrook, some important taboos have been broken by this campaign, and that is good for democracy. Perhaps the media will have learned a lesson: that it needs to take popular new movements seriously, to engage in serious self-critical debate about their own assumptions, and not resort to bullying and smear?