Nigel Farage addressing Reform UK rally at Trago Mills, Devon Nigel Farage addressing Reform UK rally at Trago Mills, Devon. Photo: Owain.davies / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

The media’s election coverage has shown an outsize interest in Nigel Farage and Reform UK and a lack of interest in scrutinising power and addressing key issues, argues Des Freedman

Despite having no MPs at this time, the Reform leader has received significantly more airtime and column inches than his counterparts in the smaller parties. According to researchers at Loughborough University, Farage ‘has confirmed his position as the clear alternative party voice to the two main contenders’, eclipsing all other challengers. Meanwhile, Reform UK has earned 10% of overall press quotations compared to 2% for the Lib Dems with ‘the Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru collectively accounting for less than 1% of quotation time’. This obsession with Farage has served only to normalise right-wing arguments on immigration and the economy and to further marginalise candidates with progressive ideas. 

In terms of content, the media are overwhelmingly preoccupied with the ‘horse race’ aspect of the election – reporting on opinion polls, PR strategies and TV debates – rather than holding parties to account in relation to a broad set of policies. The Loughborough researchers found that coverage of the ‘electoral process’ has taken up 35% of all coverage on TV and in newspapers since the start of the campaign. Adding in stories on corruption, scandals and sleaze (such as the recent betting scandal that has plagued the Tories) and you find that 42% of all coverage is related to ‘process’ more than substantive policy debate. 

The only policy issue that even gets into double figures is that of taxation, at 11% of total coverage. However, much of this, at least in the press, is due to outrageous claims, for example, that Labour is devising ’17 ways to come after your cash’ or that there is a secret Labour plan for a wealth tax. If only. 

In reality, there is a complete consensus on fiscal austerity (and an implicit understanding that both main parties will make spending cuts should they win) and Labour has long made it clear that it has no intention to make the wealthiest pay more. Little wonder that in recent days both the Financial Times and the Economist have come out in support of Labour at the polls, as the party best placed to support business. 

Media silences 

So what are the media not talking about? Despite the crisis in funding together with its central place in British life, health provision and the NHS account for only 5% of coverage, while stories on the environment and climate change make up a staggeringly small 2% of the total. Such has been the paucity of coverage of policies to cut back on investment in fossil fuels and the need to move fast to net zero that the Green Party actually complained to the BBC accusing it of failing to cover the ‘most important issue of our times’. 

Gaza, a pressing issue for millions of people, has also been virtually non-existent. According to the Loughborough researchers, issues of ‘defence/military/security/ terrorism’ account for 3% of total coverage, though much of this has simply focused on plans to increase defence spending or the competition between Labour and Tories about who is more pro-Nato

As SNP MP Tommy Shepherd wrote in the Daily Record, there has been a ‘deafening silence when it comes to the conflict in Gaza’ during the election. ‘It has got little or no mention, and you can’t help but think it’s deliberate.’ High-profile interviews with Keir Starmer in the Guardian, for example ones by Pippa Crerar and Charlotte Edwardes have singularly failed even to ask basic questions about the Labour leader’s disastrous failure on Gaza. 

Indeed, one of the main absences in election coverage has been the lack of systematic and independent scrutiny of Starmer and Labour. Of course, there is still no end of shrill scaremongering from the right-wing press and the requisite Boris Johnson article in the Mail that ‘Keir Starmer would be the most dangerous and Left-wing prime minister since the 1970s’. 

Apart from this kind of nonsense, few journalists have taken the time to look at Labour’s growing links with big business and support from ‘prominent former Tory backers’ such as Lord Salisbury, billionaire John Caudwell and hedge-fund manager Martin Taylor. Labour, as Peter Geoghegan puts it, ‘is now Britain’s big money party’. 

Such has been the absence of detailed reporting on Labour’s proposed policies and partnerships that the veteran political journalist Michael Crick tweeted

‘In two to three years time, when Starmer and his government are no doubt deeply unpopular, I hope we in the media will ask ourselves: “Why were we so supine during the long 2024 election; why didn’t we hold Labour properly to account while we could, and ask more probing questions, and explore their records, rather than give them such an easy ride?”.’ 

There are a few isolated exceptions. There is a story in the FT that focuses on Starmer’s acceptance of £76,000 worth of free football tickets, concerts and clothing but, interestingly, it fails to mention the huge amounts of money donated to Labour from pro-Israel lobbyists since Starmer took over from Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. Similarly, a Guardian story about the return to Labour of ‘mega donors’ simply glosses over the issue of politicians being captured by big business and presents Labour as vastly more transparent and honest than the Tories. 

Failing media 

What we have really had during the course of the campaign is a plethora of puff pieces on Labour. Many journalists, aware that they will be dealing with a Labour prime minister from 5 July, appear all too happy to cosy up to senior Labour figures.  

So we have had a very upbeat profile of shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves in the Guardian arguing that, despite her free-market commitment, she ‘carries little ideological baggage’. There is a rather sickening Guardian interview with Starmer in which we learn very little about his politics, but do find out that he doesn’t have phobias and doesn’t dream at night. And there is an utterly unrevelatory feature in the Financial Times on Starmer which characterises him as a ‘rational, diligent, ruthless’ lawyer but somehow fails even to mention his dealings with Julian Assange when he was the head of the Crown Prosecution Service. 

Not surprisingly, one of the issues the media haven’t reported on during the course of the campaign is our broken media system. Of course, this is mostly to do with the fact that the main parties had nothing to say about changing the media in their own manifestos. Labour, desperate to seek an endorsement from Rupert Murdoch, refused even to acknowledge the need for press reform following on from phone hacking and other crimes identified during the Leveson Inquiry, nor to call for measures to address what the Media Reform Coalition describe as ‘the UK’s twin crises of concentrated media ownership and a collapsing local media sector’. 

True, the Telegraph, in a story eccentric even by their own high standards, did run a comment piece arguing that ‘the media has led the country into an anti-Tory fervour’. Overall, however, a media system dominated by billionaires and bureaucrats is hardly likely to call for its own destruction, and an incoming Labour government is definitely not going to want to upset the editors and broadcasters who demonised Jeremy Corbyn, thus allowing Starmer to take over, and who are still continuing to vilify him. 

As always, real change – whether in relation to political issues or prospects for independent journalism – will have to come from the movements and candidates who stand up to the stultifying political consensus, whether that be on Gaza, the climate crisis, public ownership or taxing the wealthy. 

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Des Freedman

Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the co-author of 'The Media Manifesto' (Polity 2020, author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.