2024 General Election

Why Nigel Farage’s anti-media election interference claims are so dangerous

With election day approaching, Nigel Farage has accused the media of undemocratic actions following a Channel 4 investigation revealing racist comments by a Reform UK canvasser. Farage claims media bias and election interference, echoing Donald Trump’s rhetoric.

Why Nigel Farage’s anti-media election interference claims are so dangerous

A s the headlines about alleged racism in Reform UK pile up, party leader Nigel Farage has stepped up his own campaign to paint the media as undemocratic.

With a week to go before election day, a Channel 4 undercover investigation caught a Reform canvasser on camera using racist language about Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and saying the army should “just shoot” asylum seekers crossing the Channel. Reform has now dropped support for three of its candidates over a number of offensive comments, and a Reform candidate has defected to the Conservatives over the row.

Farage described the Channel 4 investigation as a “stitch-up on the most astonishing scale”. According to Farage, the canvasser was a paid actor set up by the broadcaster to make his party look racist. Reform has since reported Channel 4 to the Electoral Commission, accusing the broadcaster of election interference.

When Farage appeared on BBC’s Question Time the following day, audience members challenged him about the racist comments and asked why his party attracted extremists. Farage subsequently attacked the BBC for having “rigged” the audience. The organisation was a “political actor”, he claimed.

Speaking at a Reform rally in Birmingham over the weekend to an audience of 4,500 Reform supporters and canvassers, Farage attacked both the BBC and Channel 4 as partisan institutions not worthy of the label of public service broadcasters.

Accompanied by pyrotechnics and Union Jacks, Farage implied that the broadcasters, as part of the establishment, were conspiring to stop Reform in its tracks for fear of its success. He rehearsed this narrative in posts on X, framed as a POLITICAL INTERFERENCE ALERT.

This strategy of media populism is a mirror of US president Donald Trump’s rhetoric, and dangerous for democracy. It doesn’t just paint broadcasters as a scapegoat for Farage’s own electoral failure, it sets the scene for complaints of election rigging when the results come in on Friday morning.

Fake news, populist reality

It may be Trump who brought the phrase “fake news” into the mainstream, but Farage has long attacked the supposedly conspiring media elite as part of his populist approach.

Since his election to the European Parliament in 2014, Farage (then leader of Ukip) has repeatedly accused the BBC of bias and double standards. He has presented mainstream media as distorting reality (especially in connection with unfavourable representations of himself) in a way that interferes with people’s ability to practise their democratic rights.

He appears to have ramped up this rhetoric in the final weeks of the election campaign. Just in the last week, Farage has accused the Daily MailGoogle and Ofcom of “political interference” and “election interference” for various alleged mis- and under-representations.

He has now added TikTok to the list, saying they had suspended the live feed from Sunday’s rally because of alleged hate speech. This language and his repeated use of the term “rigged” to describe BBC’s Question Time audience are unlikely to be incidental. They are a striking imitation of Trump’s repeated accusations of the “rigged election” in the US since 2020.

This populist tactic serves two purposes. First, it uses Farage’s status as supposed persona non grata in establishment media circles as proof of his unorthodox truth-telling. As the Reform UK chairman, Richard Tice, introduced Farage at the rally, he complimented Farage’s bravery to stand up against a conspiring establishment, “to tell the truth … against all the pressure to stick at it”.

This self-portrayal of a certain truth-telling faculty is characteristic of populism. Untruthful claims and disinformation – such as some of Reform’s claims about climate change are presented as truth and often taken as such by supporters because they appear to be authentically performed. This authenticity-based understanding of truth is what Trump’s then-campaign manager Kellyanne Conway famously referred to as “alternative facts”.

In the story populists invent about political reality, the truthteller/leader is a saviour of the good people who are being misled by a self-interested and lying political and media establishment.

Preparing for the future

The second purpose of Farage’s tactic of anti-media populism is the long game. By accusing the media of interfering in his electoral success, he can claim after the election that his views have far greater support than the vote suggests. He can then use this claim to build even greater momentum behind him for the following election in five years’ time.

Farage has openly declared his intention to become prime minister in 2029 and to build a movement to that effect during the upcoming parliament. His increasingly Trumpian rhetoric – even launching his campaign with a promise to “make Britain great again” – and the threat this poses to British democracy should be foremost on voters’ and the incoming government’s minds in this election and beyond.



▪ This piece was originally published in The Conversation and re-published in PUBLIC SQUARE UK on 1 July 2024. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
Cover: Flickr/Gage Skidmore. (Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)
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