Fringe Benefits

Exploring the findings of her new research on the media and populism, Sophie Gaston explores the growing discord amongst the electorate about the ‘mainstream monopolies’ of certain ideologies within the media.

It is a commonly held notion that the British media is one of the most competitive and politically influential in the world. Over recent years, however, the industry fragmentation catalysed through the rise of digital, and its democratisation of content production, has begun to ebb away at the very notion of a ‘mass audience’, a concept that had – in decades past – become intrinsically linked to the functioning of our democracy. The proliferation of issues- and campaign-based outlets catering to perspectives outside of the parameters of the mainstream has enabled everyone to find and validate their ‘truth’, and the very concept of where the needle sits becomes a matter of personal interpretation, bound up in citizens’ own views about political, economic and media power.

A recent survey I undertook with Opinium Research for a new report, Mediating Populism, demonstrated how substantively this interpretation differs depending on political orientation. Based on a person’s own political inclinations, it might have been Nigel Farage, Jeremy Corbyn, or even the Lib Dems, which sprung to mind.

Of the two major parties, Conservative voters clearly share a more common and favourable understanding of ‘the mainstream’, and who sits within its confines – 38 per cent think voices outside the mainstream are given too much credence, and only 15 per cent want to hear more of them.

They are considerably more hostile to perspectives outside of where they draw these lines than Labour supporters, whose generally favour more ‘non-mainstream’ voices, but are more diverse in their responses. Overall, 32 per cent of Labour voters want more coverage for non-mainstream voices, and 26 per cent want to see less. This diversity is likely reflective of the compound views of its divided supporter base on polarising issues and candidates, motivated in their respective hostilities towards Farage and Brexit, and their support for (or dissatisfaction with) Jeremy Corbyn.

Among UKIP supporters, the survey also distils clear divisions between its ‘establishment’ and ‘anti-establishment’ factions – with the views of the former aligning more closely with Conservative voters (40 per cent thinking non-mainstream voices are given too much airtime), and the latter with Labour voters, with 34 per cent who want to see more voices from outside the mainstream.

One of the most interesting groups in this survey were Lib Dems, who despite being a minor party themselves, were clearly the least favourable to the idea of including more non-mainstream voices in our media, at only 12 per cent. This suggests that they may feel that both the major parties forming the ‘mainstream’ have been co-opted by extremist perspectives, whether Corbynism on the Left and Brexit on the Right. Perhaps their antagonism towards these forces supersedes their desire to create space for their own perspectives; or rather, the Lib Dems regard their views as the ultimate representation of the centre-ground ‘mainstream’ position.

The results of this survey converge around one of the most pressing debates gripping the media-political axis in Britain: the evident discord amongst certain parts of the electorate about the ‘mainstream monopolies’ of certain perspectives and ideologies. This was particularly captured in the recent Newsnight-Corbyn ‘hat-gate’ furore, which reflects a long process of rising hostilities between the Labour Leader’s supporters and the ‘mainstream media’.

While this particular incident has been dismissed as a farce, we should nonetheless absolutely feel alarmed if a sizeable proportion of voters for the official party of opposition become convinced that the public broadcaster charged with such a fundamental role in our democracy is engaged in enacting a systematic conspiracy for political ends. It can only further encourage the retreat of citizens to information echo chambers that undermine not only the idea of objective truth, but also the common ground of community, experience and social cohesion critical to good governance.

It is also fascinating to contrast citizens’ widely varying opinions on the vexed question of ‘platforming’ voices on the political fringes, with the heated debate the issue attracted amongst journalists I interviewed as part of this project. In many ways, journalists were more united as a group; everyone, whether on the Left and the Right, agreed that the media as a whole wasn’t striking the right balance, compared to 43 per cent of citizens – the largest group – who are comfortable with the status quo.

But journalists were also as heterogeneous as citizens in their motivations for this discontent – some were enraged about the level of airtime given to Nigel Farage proportionate to his parliamentary representation; some about the platforms given to Muslim hate preachers in misguided attempts of ‘balance’. Some journalists were concerned about the ‘normalisation’ of non-mainstream views, while others felt we should have more confidence in the discerning opinions of citizens.

The aftermath of the EU Referendum brought accusations that the British media, and the political class more generally, had been too cordoned off from societal discontent and the full spectrum of ordinary citizens’ perspectives to have anticipated the groundswell of support that the Leave campaign would command. What is clear is that well-intentioned efforts that manifest as a blunt instrument only afford a level of tokenism that can backfire – whether as one journalist described, a well-to-do colleague at the BBC favouring Farage on the assumption he “spoke for the working classes”, or figures such as Anjem Choudary fuelling mistrust when presented as a representative of the Muslim community.

Like both our major parties, the challenge for the old guard of the ‘mass audience’ is to find a way of broadening the church of perspectives they offer, and creating space for genuine, meaningful debate on contentious issues – but without losing the capacity to command a common and inclusive narrative.