Why is Nigel Farage all over the airwaves while my party barely gets a look-in? | Catherine Mayer

Media codes meant to ensure fair elections leave the Women’s Equality party battling for coverage others get on a plate

This morning I woke up wondering if lightning ever struck twice – and hoping that it did. In April 2016, as my Icelandair flight made its final descent into Heathrow, a fireball engulfed the plane. By the time I reached arrivals, news organisations were on the phone asking for eyewitness testimonies. I had little to say about my split-second inside a giant firework, but the platform gave me an opportunity to speak about something else. “What did you think when the lightning hit?” asked one interviewer after another. My responses were the same: “I thought, ‘I can’t die – I have to vote for the Women’s Equality party (WE) next week.’”

The party I had co-founded months earlier was in the closing stages of its first election campaigns. Our biggest task, as a new party, was to let people know we existed. WE went on to pick up more than 350,000 votes. Now I am fighting another campaign, this time as WE’s lead candidate in London for the European elections. If you weren’t aware of my candidacy, or that we’ve just published the most bold and radical manifesto of this electoral contest, or that we’ve just won our first seat in the local elections, in Congleton, don’t be surprised. Ofcom guidelines, intended to ensure fair elections by allocating TV and radio airtime to parties according to measures such as their past performance, are often misinterpreted as instructions to silence newer parties. It takes a stroke of luck, good or bad, to get us public attention.

We’re a lucky party. The day before the 2017 snap general election, we attracted extensive media coverage again – because we received death and rape threats, one signed, grotesquely, in the name of Jo Cox, the wonderful MP murdered the previous year. In the name of impartiality we were excluded from any on-air discussions of the threats or the wider culture of hostility and violence that we came into politics to change.

This is the same impartiality that in the past few days caused an episode of Have I Got News for You featuring Change UK’s leader, Heidi Allen, to be pulled, and a pre-recorded BBC podcast with my sister WE candidate, Hannah Barham-Brown, about her experiences as a disabled doctor, to be postponed – while splattering Nigel Farage all over your screens and airwaves.

This farrago might seem at odds with Ofcom rules. After all, the Brexit party is a new organisation, even if it has borrowed its few ideas from the 50s – the 1850s. Like Brexit itself, the systemic exclusion of some small parties from UK political coverage and the overrepresentation of others can only be understood as part of a bigger picture that journalists more often reinforce than challenge (and I speak as someone who committed political journalism for more than three decades).

There are many reasons for this, not least a press corps heavily drawn from the same narrow range of backgrounds and expected to reflect institutional judgments about the relative importance of people and stories. Individual journalists do great work about gender and racial pay gaps, for example, but if news organisations really took these subjects seriously, they would do more to close their own gaps. Instead inequality is treated as a side issue rather than the root cause of the chaos engulfing politics in the UK and beyond.

Journalism largely missed or muddled the Brexit story because it is an exemplar of that inequality. To ward off criticisms of elitism, it gives platforms, again and again, to figures it misapprehends as voices of the people. Only an elite could mistake a wealthy, privately educated former commodities broker for a man of the people. The only way in which Farage has ever aided “the people” is in highlighting the unfairness of a system that gives much more weight to some votes and voices than others.

These impulses are compounded by the intensifying competition for viewers, clicks and eyeballs in an industry disrupted by the digital revolution. Print and online media outlets, though not subject to the Ofcom guidelines, are nonetheless influenced by them – not least because politicians who are TV regulars are always going to be seen as newsworthy. The phenomenon of exposure being treated as reason enough for more exposure has already played out to its logical conclusion in presidential elections in the US and Ukraine.

There’s something else Farage, Trump and Ukraine’s incoming president Volodymyr Zelensky have in common. All have been able to attract popularity by pretending to be outsiders.

In Britain, broadcast guidelines and a voting system designed for stability and to resist extremes are combining to foment instability and extremism. As a journalist, I saw the rise of regressive populism and decided I could do more to combat it by founding a party than by writing about it. But smaller parties face barriers when trying to get their message out via routes open to establishment parties and regressive populists. And that matters because our message is urgent and compelling. WE is the only party to lay out a blueprint for making the UK better than it has ever been, inside a transformed Europe.

It is less than 10 days until the European elections and WE will spend that time doing everything it can to reach voters. WE is fortunate in already having wide and deep support and brilliant activists. I’m also offering secular prayers for another stroke of luck that, for a few minutes at least, catapults us over the barriers to broadcast coverage. Dying to be heard? In this broken system, it can take a near-death experience to get news organisations to listen.

• Catherine Mayer is lead candidate for the Women’s Equality party in the European elections


Catherine Mayer

The GuardianTramp

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