Mediating Populism

In the immediate aftermath of the American Presidential Election, there was some rather brutal soul-searching about the role that the mainstream media had played in supporting Trump’s victory. The same questions were asked when the BBC took the decision to feature far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen as a keynote guest on its Andrew Marr show.

It is a necessarily vexed topic – one that cuts across our desire for a free press but also for stable, functioning representative democracy.

On the one hand, it is right the media supports political pluralism, that it responds to new social and political phenomena, and that it recognises the agitations of those who aren’t always represented in public debate.

At the same time, traditional conventions of serious mainstream media – which, through the growth of the 24-hour news cycle in the 1990s and 2000s, have become increasingly symbiotic with the political sphere – can only continue to uphold their democratic function when they operate within a power logic that is directly challenged by populism. Namely, that there is good and bad publicity.

For populist parties and candidates, which rail against the establishment, this notion has been turned on its head: all publicity is good publicity. Negative coverage or commentary simply reinforces their claim that there are ‘elite forces’ seeking to repress their legitimacy. As self-declared bell-weathers of the people’s (sacrosanct) will, this in turn implies that the media is part of the political conspiracy to box ordinary citizens and their interests out of the corridors of power.

With this traditional power balance eroded, the media finds itself in a difficult position – with few options at its disposal to avoid further contributing to populist trajectories, without suppressing political representation.

It’s easy to see how the door was opened in the first place: the ‘media age’, which brought so much fear to Gordon Brown, ushered in a ruthless new era in which spin doctors and the press both fundamentally raised the stakes of political failure. The hyper-centralised media management practices that ensued bred a generation of deeply boring politicians.

Populists like Nigel Farage were a breath of fresh air, with their straight-talking fearlessness, and their willingness to mix amongst citizens in their own communities. One of the hard truths is that there is a natural synergy between populist leaders and media conventions, which prize big personalities, conflict, emotive narratives and a sense of dynamic insurgency (for an academic exploration of this, see Prof. Paula Diehl).

It is also the case that ‘big personalities’ espousing far-right perspectives have been given tremendously influential platforms here in the UK for decades – indeed, Katie Hopkins and Piers Morgan have made a career out of being the go-to authoritarian provocateurs, ready to spring into action like manic rottweilers at the slightest whiff of ‘identity politics’ or political correctness.

While their views are often unpalatable, we must try to see these figures as a reflection of the diversity in the British media and the reverence that is held in our nation for free and unfettered speech.

The bigger issue is perhaps that there is an imbalance of perspectives between the Left and Right axes on major national UK platforms, which, combined with the overt campaigning function of many of our most influential newspapers, compromises the balanced representation of political issues. The Loughborough University studies into the European Referendum, which found that, weighted by circulation, 80% of UK press coverage was hostile towards the EU, provides a telling example.

Towards the end of 2016, numerous newspapers and magazines – including Time, the Spectator, the Financial Times – recognised Nigel Farage or Donald Trump as ‘man/politician of the year’. I imagine that for some editors, this was a decision made with some reservations. It was indisputable that both figures had been utterly consequential, and yet was heralding this status simply reinforcing their ruthless quest for power, at the expense of liberal values and democratic stability?

On news shelves across the world, mastheads peeked from behind these now utterly familiar faces with a hesitant sense of resignation. The men, now icons; the media, their reluctant adulators.

For American journalists, it is clear that the challenges of reporting on populism have only just begun. Their access now at threat, the integrity of the White House’s press operations in question, the Commander-in-Chief emboldened by his mandate and entirely unashamed by duplicity.

The astonishing pace of change since Trump’s inauguration has rattled the media: at least two or three times a day, reporters and wires reveal outrageous details of a new executive order signed, a social protection to be wound back. They intend to highlight the President’s reckless approach to policy-making and his apparently boundless immorality – but for much of the public, all they see is a catalogue of stories underscoring that this businessman truly does ‘shake things up’ and ‘get things done’.

While populism is by no means a new phenomenon, 2016 was the year when populists, for so long rattling the cage, found themselves at the victory party. It is not the beginning, but certainly early days for our understanding (or perhaps, acceptance) of the relationship between the media and populists. What is clear, is that the media conventions of the political past simply will not stand up to the demands of the populist present. The media must find a way to reset the power balance – or we will all lose our footing.