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Why do we see so much of Farage on TV?

Andy Dawson is sick of seeing the face of Nigel Farage (above) on television - Credit: Archant

UKIP’s Nigel Farage is everywhere – but does he warrant the exposure the media afford him?

Last Thursday evening, former UKIP leader and current Donald Trump lickspittle Nigel Farage took his place on the panel of the BBC’s flagship politics show Question Time.

On November 30, when David Dimbleby announced that Farage would be appearing on the show again the following week, I sighed wearily at the predictability of it all and wondered just how many times the ex-UKIP leader had appeared on the show.

It turns out that last Thursday saw the MEP’s 31st appearance – placing him eleventh in the all-time appearance rankings since the show began in 1979.

The top ten includes political stalwarts such as Paddy Ashdown, Michael Heseltine, Harriet Harman and Shirley Williams. Topping the list is Kenneth Clarke, who has been a regular on the panel for almost 35 years. It all looks like a Spitting Image cast from the late 1980s.

Crucially, those ten most regular Question Time guests have a combined tally of 302 years spent as Members of Parliament – that’s an average of 30 years each. Farage, on the other hand, has failed to be elected as an MP on no less than seven separate occasions since 1994. So why does he appear on the show so often?

Recently I saw a tweet which highlighted just how easy it is to complain to the BBC – the tweet read: ‘Call BBC to complain about UKIP being given so much airtime. Takes less than 2 mins 03700 100222 option 1 then 3 and you speak to someone.’

As I saw a wave of Farage-related grumbling on my Twitter timeline, it seemed like a good idea to give the tweet a boost, and it wasn’t long before the retweets started to mount up as this simple act of UKIP opposition spread.

Within 24 hours, the information had been retweeted more than a thousand times and my replies were filled with anecdotal evidence as to how easy it was to do (and how polite and patient the BBC’s call-handling staff were being – thumbs up to Auntie for this at least).

Things got a little bit more interesting when the Question Time show producer Michael Hunter waded in on Twitter, keen to defend the fact that Farage and his band of UKIP cohorts have appeared on the show so often in recent years.

Among the facts and figures that we pinged back and forth to one another, was my favourite tweet from Michael, which read: ‘In 2015, we did 40 shows. Con were on 40 times, Lab 40, Lib Dem 17, UKIP 15, SNP 12. Unfair?’

Well, given that the Liberal Democrats were actually co-running the country for the first half of 2016, the SNP had a landslide win of 56 of the 59 seats in Scotland, while UKIP saw their number of MPs halved from two to one (both, let’s not forget, were originally Tory defectors), erm … yes, I’d be inclined to say that it looks incredibly unfair.

I still vividly remember the furore when the BNP leader Nick Griffin appeared on Question Time as recently as 2009. Protestors from Unite Against Fascism and other organisations gathered outside the BBC Television Centre beforehand and Griffin was booed and heckled by the studio audience throughout the recording.

It was the BNP’s first and last appearance on Question Time but it acts as an interesting guide. Following it, BBC director general Mark Thompson told a House of Lords communications committee that future BNP appearances on Question Time would ‘probably be no more than once a year and could be less’, based on the party continuing the same levels of support.

At the time, the BNP’s strongest showing was its 6% share of the UK vote in the European Parliament. In the 2014 European elections, UKIP took a 26% share of the vote. Even if you were to take UKIP seriously as a European political force and not regard them as a single- issue band of disaffected, cranks, those figures make them just over four times stronger than the BNP were back in 2009, when one appearance a year on Question Time would be a regarded as a luxury.

So, realistically speaking, UKIP should only be featured on Question Time no more than five times a year, right? In 2010, the year after Nick Griffin’s appearance, Nigel Farage alone made four appearances. He’d made three in 2009 – his chummier version of far-right politics had clearly seduced the media back then, and has continued to do so since.

The fact is that UKIP were on the panel in 10 of the 15 England-based 2016 editions of Question Time directly before the EU referendum (UKIP don’t usually get invited on to the non-English editions). A relatively tiny political movement, with scarcely a credible mandate anywhere, offered a voice on 66% of the BBC’s main political show before the most important national vote in living memory? Doesn’t feel right.

Throw in the fact that 12 of the 16 subsequent editions of the show following the referendum have been held in towns that voted Leave and remember the words of Question Time producer Michael Hunter – ‘unfair?’

Booking guests on radio and TV show can be a tricky business – there’s a lot of hours to be filled in our 24-hour media and most political figures spend a lot of their time doing the hard work that they were elected to do, such as being in government, opposing government and dealing with constituents.

But UKIP don’t have this burden to deal with – they have just one MP, and their attendance and voting record in the European Parliament is dire, putting them in the relegation zone of the MEP league table.

So if they’re not in Brussels and they’re not in Parliament, the few of them that are actually deemed sane and palatable enough to appear in the media get to do so with alarming regularity. 
The likes of Paul Nuttall, Suzanne Evans and even Roger Helmer are an easy booking for producers. I believe it is thanks to the laziness of those producers that the UKIP message has been allowed to infect the political conversation and enable a hitherto shy sub-section of the population.

I don’t believe that Nigel Farage and UKIP should be silenced but they should definitely be covered fairly and proportionally – the blanket coverage they have been afforded has directly led to the shifting of the political landscape in Britain.

The BBC has repeatedly taken the easy option and given a regular platform to Farage and his mob, with very little in the way of rigorous scrutiny of their policies.

UKIP are polling at around 6% again these days, just as the BNP did in 2009. So let’s only have them on Question Time once a year, and let’s make a dissenting noise when they do.

Andy Dawson co-hosts the chart-topping Athletico Mince podcast with Bob Mortimer. He created the popular Twitter account @getinthesea

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