You might expect that Britain’s famously aggressive media would tear into his multiple deceits. Yet so tame has their treatment of Nigel Faragebeen, so indulgent and complicit, viewers were surprised when the BBC‘s political editor found the courage last week to raise a timorous voice andask him why he was employing his German wife rather than giving a British job to a British worker. Broadcasters are ferocious when they tackle mainstream politicians, but are as eager to please as wet-tongued labradors when they meet Ukip. To understand why, you need to grasp how the political culture of modern democracies encourages both conformism and zealotry.
Broadcasters say they give Britain’s representative of Europe’s rightwing wave such prominence because Farage is good on television: a cheeky and witty guest rather than a formulaic political pro. As Hollywood doesn’t cast ugly actors as romantic leads and radio producers seldom hire presenters with stammers, accusing broadcasters of double standards because they favour people who are good on television feels as absurd as accusing Brendan Rodgers of bias because he picks gifted footballers to play for Liverpool or publishers of prejudice because they commission authors who write well.
Media managers would have every right to sneer at bland “professional politicians”, and promote exciting alternatives, had they not helped create the soundbite-spouting robots they are so keen to denounce. With the arrival of 24-hour news, they had to fill hours of empty schedules. Every ill-considered statement by a politician became a “gaffe”; every disagreement with the leader a “split”. Ambitious politicians responded by saying nothing that might be used against them. Social media and mobile phones have accelerated their desire to march in step with the herd. Now a public figure must behave as if they are on camera whenever they are in a public space.
I am not trying to excuse our leaders. Political parties, private companies and public bureaucracies need to relax if they want a hearing in the 21st century, and stop treating the smallest deviation from the party line as an “unprofessional” affront. But it is rich of broadcasters to preach against professional politics when they were its midwives, and sinister of them to promote fanaticism as a cure for the boredom it generates.
The English have a strong desire to avoid seriousness, a character trait that makes England both an attractive and a remarkably gullible country. We too easily dismiss people as performers putting on a show. “He can’t really mean that,” we say as the far-left politician salutes Saddam Hussein after he has ordered the genocide of the Kurds, or defends Bashar al-Assad as his forces torture civilians. “He isn’t being serious,” we say, as the far-right politician declares his admiration for Vladimir Putin and signs up members who want to kick out the blacks.
Experience has taught English media managers in particular to believe that no one means what they say. Editors demand opinion pieces that confirm their readers’ prejudices and find willing hacks who will write as required, regardless of whether they believe what they say or not. In broadcasting, BBC researchers call and ask thousands of journalists and intellectuals to take a genuinely held belief and reduce it to absurdity. “Would you come on and say that 2+2=5?” they ask. You refuse. They hang up and phone round until they find someone so desperate for attention that they will say it.
When considering Ukip, we should remember the advice of Lord Renwick, a Foreign Office mandarin and Labour peer. He told young diplomats from good families that their background made them suckers for “the Wykehamist fallacy”. When they went abroad, they were in danger of believing that foreign potentates merely struck blood-curdling poses for effect. For all the bombast, they would think that, underneath, these must be civilised men with an ironic sensibility who might have been educated at Winchester. “They haven’t,” said Renwick. “Actually, they’re a bunch of thugs.”