Sampo Viiri from the Finnish Institute blogs about the event ‘Shaping the vote: politics and populism in the media’ which was organised 15 May 2014 by Counterpoint UK.
The European parliament elections are now over and the populist and eurosceptic right-wing parties have made spectacular gains across Europe, perhaps most notably Nigel Farage’s UKIP in the United Kingdom and the National Front in France. The outcome has already been labelled as an earthquake but what this means for the daily politics in Brussels and Strasbourg remains to be seen. Shortly before the election Counterpoint UK organised a panel discussion on the effects of the media on the support of populist right-wing parties in Europe.
The panelists introduced the different media aspects in the respective countries. Erkka Railo explained that the main points in the media coverage about the Finns Party (previously True Finns) were immigration and the European financial crisis. The Finnish media has been very critical towards financial aid packages for other European countries, which has given credibility to the anti-European ideas of the Finns Party. There has also been a big increase in the news stories about immigration. 10 years ago most of the media saw Finland lacking “good” immigrants, but with the hard economic times the tide has turned towards more critical views on immigration. Now that the European financial crisis is perhaps finally starting to ease off, the Finns Party may need to utilise xenophobic rhetoric because they can’t forever keep blaming the international economic crisis for everything.
To summarise the findings in other countries: In France the president has a lot of power to influence the content in the media. Nicolas Sarkozy used populist themes himself in his bid to re-election in 2012, labeling multiculturalism and Islam as threats to the republic. In the Netherlands the assassination of the populist leader Pim Fortuyn in 2002 was a shock to the media and everyone, after which nobody dared to criticise the populists for a while. Dutch populism should be researched beyond Geert Wilders’ PVV party because other major parties are also engaging in populism and the public’s level of confidence towards politicians is low.
Norway’s case is unique in Western Europe because the Progress Party is now actually in the government and thus involved in important national decisions, so the media has to give serious space for their policies. In the United Kingdom the media’s role has some contradictory aspects: BBC somehow fears its liberal reputation and may want to give extra space for UKIP’s views, but as a whole the press has been trying to kill off UKIP. This hasn’t lead to any results. On the contrary, parts of the electorate see the demonising of UKIP as a conspiracy and this has increased their support.
The different country studies made clear that the political context and the parties are quite different in each country. It is important not to oversimplify and label all the populist parties as far-right or treat all of them as parts of the same international political force. Some of the parties like UKIP, the Finns Party or the Norwegian Progress Party are fairly mellow compared to the more extreme far-right parties for example in Greece and Hungary. Counterpoint has created a visual tool to compare the different parties, and together with the Daily Telegraph they also published an interactive map about the different right-wing populist parties in Europe which highlights their differences and similarities. However, not all the victorious populist parties were right-wing, for example the radical leftist Syriza won the election in Greece.
The Finnish Institute in London continues to investigate the media effects on the public’s knowledge and potential information asymmetries. Recently we published the report Knowledge Gap and the Information Environment - More informed citizens or a growing divide? which examines the media effects on distribution of knowledge between different socioeconomic groups.