Is the media to blame for the rise of the far right?
Illustration: Gabriella Nero

Wherever you go, whatever you read – the idea of the ‘rise of the far right’ is almost omnipresent. Far right parties have made electoral gains over the last few years. Importantly however, these gains are minimal – in most European governments, far right parties are still not key players and do not challenge mainstream parties in elections. But, the ideas of far right parties are gaining popularity and traction – with Brexit and anti Black Lives Matter protests being prime examples, and at the same time, media coverage of the far right has become far more extensive. Whichever newspaper you open or news broadcast you watch; you will find content focused on the far right. This hype has normalised and popularised far right ideas – and the media is partially responsible for this. 

Rewind to 2014. In the EU elections, the far right, anti-EU party UKIP received over 27% of the vote. Their campaign had been entirely centred around the UK leaving the EU – Brexit. Previously the party was on the sidelines of British politics, but now it had managed to get the largest percentage of votes in an EU election – historically this had always been either the Conservative or Labour party. The media was excited to say the least – talk of a “political earthquake”, a “stunning victory” and UKIP “storming” the elections was everywhere. Conservative prime minister David Cameron feared that this new surge of support for UKIP would pose an existential threat to his party and to his premiership.

Brexit was garnering more and more media attention, UKIP was portraying itself as a populist party (which, of course created the illusion of being ‘popular’) and eventually the referendum was promised – an attempt by Cameron to save face and to protect his position as prime minister, mostly fuelled by media hype. 

No one seemed to have considered that the 27% result for UKIP was limited to only those who had actually voted, rather than registered voters. European elections have a tendency to produce low voter turnouts, and 2014 was no exception – only around 34% of eligible voters actually went to the ballot box. When looking at the percentage of votes UKIP received from all eligible voters, the picture changes dramatically and results shrink to below 10%. 

Additionally, European elections are often used by protest voters. As they seem to be less impactful and relevant, voters use their vote to criticise those currently in power and vote in more extreme ways. So, maybe Cameron did not have to be so concerned – it seemed unlikely that an outsider party like UKIP would have made waves in the general election. 

Of course, the media does not rule politicians or the public. But words and images are powerful. It is entirely possible for the media to influence public opinion and policy decisions, and there is no doubt that it has done so in the past. For example, the media hype around UKIP increased public support for the party. There are multiple ways in which the media has contributed to the mainstreaming and normalising of far right ideas. 

Before having a closer look at how the media shapes the mainstream, let’s briefly define the general idea of it. The mainstream is usually seen as the middle ground between extreme right and extreme left politics, anything that is widely accepted by society and receives little questioning or disagreement. It is important however to note that it is a concept, not a physical entity. Therefore, it can move and adapt, becoming more conservative or liberal over time – for example, same-sex marriage was unthinkable 20 years ago, but is now widely accepted. 

“Whilst the media cannot tell you what to think, it can tell you what to think about.”

Today, even far right protests against the Black Lives Matter movement are not always condemned for their ideas and actions by the media. For example, in a leaked email, Sky News reporters were instructed not to call the counter demonstrations “far right” because “some of the people are not necessarily ‘far right’”. Instead it should be described as “a counter demonstration by people who say they’re there to protect the statues”. That this wording normalises the discriminatory and racist motives of many counter protestors did not seem to be considered in the email. 

Everyone consumes news everyday – whether that is from article headlines on social media, or TV or radio broadcasts or reading online or physical newspapers. It makes sense that the most covered topics are most present in the minds of consumers. So the more attention the media gives to an issue, the more attention it will receive from the public as well. Agenda setting theory explains this – whilst the media cannot tell you what to think, it can tell you what to think about. In our case, this is far right ideas. 

When the media gives attention to these ideas, it also gives them a platform. The ideas of the far right, such as Brexit, racism, anti-immigration sentiments or extreme UK national pride, are talked about more, and explained in greater detail. In turn, they become more accessible and socially acceptable and eventually gain supporters. If you don’t know anything about an idea, you cannot believe in it – but the media is making sure everyone is aware of the ideas of the far right. 

Additionally, agenda setting theory explains that the more the media covers the far right (and at times fails to criticise it), the more politicians think that this is a reflection of the majority’s thoughts.  It is then that the media creates pressure for a Brexit referendum or gives Boris Johnson the opportunity to criticise Black Lives Matter protests – effectively giving him a free pass in siding with the far right dominated counter protests. Of course the media also reflects public opinion – if there were no far right movements at all, there would be no reason to write about them. However, when a topic is covered disproportionately the media begins to shape public opinion and redirect the public’s attention.    

For example, Nigel Farage – the former leader of UKIP and now leader of the Brexit Party, both of which are classed as far right parties by most academics in the field – holds the record for the most appearances on BBC Question Time. Some of these appearances are surely justified – but why should he of all people hold this record? Of course the argument can be made that controversial opinions and guests attract viewers, but is that really an excuse? Question Time has been accused of platforming far right ideas at other times as well – for example by allowing an audience member, who was a supporter of far-right extremist Tommy Robinson, to discuss migration on the show.  

“Whilst the media cannot be blamed entirely for the increased popularity of far right ideas or the move of the mainstream towards the right, it is clear that it is also not standing in the way of this.”

There are countless other examples of the media showing bias towards right wing ideas and politics. But it is not only about how they report, but also what they report on. More can be done to avoid the mainstreaming and focus on the far right – by ensuring diverse voices are reflected in the media, giving minorities a bigger platform and portraying far right ideas more cautiously and critically. There is a need for media outlets to accept more responsibility and diversify their staff and reporting– even traditionally left-wing outlets like The Guardian have work to do. The Guardian specifically has, for example, conducted an in depth study on far right populism – but nowhere in the study is the role of the media discussed. Critical self-reflection is lacking where it should be a key focus.

Whilst the media cannot be blamed entirely for the increased popularity of far right ideas or the move of the mainstream towards the right, it is clear that it is also not standing in the way of this. Not enough is being done to ensure impartiality and inclusivity. Instead, right wing ideas are being promoted, made accessible, and normalised – which is exactly what far right parties and groups want to see. For now, their goal is not political power in the form of governing positions. Instead, the goal is to infiltrate parties that have a more central position in the political sphere and create a shift towards the right in society. Because only then can their visions like Brexit, or the continuation of racism in UK politics and society, become reality. The media must question its role within this and ultimately do better in representing all groups of society and limiting the spread of far right ideas.