It is neither astonishing nor controversial to observe that the British political establishment – politicians and their client political journalists alike – have only animosity and contempt towards the UK Independence Party and the 30 per cent or more of the British electorate who are likely to vote for them at the European Parliament elections later in May.
From their attempt to pre-ordain the outcome of the recent Nick Clegg vs Nigel Farage debates on Britain’s place in the EU to their laser focus on UKIP’s lunatic fringe, the British media has not been shy to express its negative opinion of euroscepticism or those who in any way seek to change the status quo of Britain’s place sulking at the periphery of EU decision-making.
But there are few examples of this bias – borne out of desperation to discredit the insurgent party and a refusal to engage on any issues of real substance – more telling than the BBC’s latest ‘interview’ with Nigel Farage. Nick Robinson asks the questions, and the thrust of his interrogation is this: because Farage employs his wife, a German citizen, as his personal secretary, UKIP’s arguments about unrestricted European immigration causing downward pressure on wages and reduced employment of indigenous workers are hypocritical, and that Nigel Farage is therefore totally discredited and borderline corrupt himself.
A couple of observations to start. Firstly, this blog is in agreement with the need to curb the persistent practice of politicians (be it MPs or MEPs) hiring family members purportedly to serve as ‘staff’. Sometimes it seems as though absolutely nothing was learned as a result of the parliamentary expenses scandal, when various relatives of politicians were found to be on official payrolls with nominal job titles but no demonstrable evidence of working to earn their money. Though the ideal of competitive and non-discriminatory hiring practices for political staffing jobs may never be reached, we could at least stop politicians from overlooking genuine talent in order to hire gormless relatives. That being said, there is no indication or suggestion that Nigel Farage’s wife is anything other than competent and qualified.
Secondly, this blog supports a liberal, open immigration policy. That is not to refute the various arguments on immigration made by UKIP, or to endorse them; whatever the net effect of unrestricted European immigration on wages and unemployment of British-born workers, it is best debated on other pages. But this blog sees only benefits to making it as easy as possible for skilled and talented people from all over the world to come and to contribute to Britain.
Back to the interview.
Not content with asking his simplistic question – “how can you claim to defend British jobs when you employ a German secretary?” – one time, Nick Robinson indulges himself with a lengthy Jeremy Paxman-style grilling, repeating the insinuation of hypocrisy and scandal (in his trademark bemused and facetious manner) in various different permutations:
You’ve warned about Europeans taking British jobs. Your wife is German! She is your secretary. She’s paid for by the British taxpayer … Was your wife taking someone else’s job then?
Farage’s response – that in his particular case, the hours and demands of the work (late nights at his house) made the secretary role particularly well suited to a spouse, making her the logical choice – did not satisfy Robinson, who continued:
You try to turn everything into a joke. You have a campaign that says that Europeans are taking British jobs. You employ a German woman to work in your office. She happens to be your wife. She happens to spend many hundreds of thousands of British taxpayers’ money. How do you justify it?
Nick Robinson knows full well that Farage’s (and UKIP’s) argument about British jobs being under threat – whether it is a legitimate concern or not – refers to the lower end of the job market, the low-skilled positions, and not to more highly skilled or specialised political staffers. But acknowledging this basic fact would undermine the attack on Farage’s credibility, and so Robinson declines to recognise the distinction.
Farage also points out that Robinson is singling him out for hiring a relative, something that is regrettably common and largely unremarkable in Westminster:
One in four MPs at Westminster employs a close family relative, but actually what’s happening the past two weeks, of 73 British MEPs, I’m the one who is being singled out, and [the press is] saying “goodness me Mr. Farage, you’re costing the British taxpayer an awful lot of money.”
At least one disaffected member of the public spoke wisdom, shouting “What about economic policies?” in the background. Quite right too – what about economic policy? What of the genuine economic costs and benefits of continued British EU membership vs a negotiated secession? The BBC was clearly not interested in following these important lines of enquiry. or asking about specific policy prescriptions.
Gazing on the scene from his adopted home in America, Andrew Sullivan (whose British political acuity has diminished with his years of absence) actually saw Nick Robinson’s glib attempt to concoct a scandal as an example to praise and emulate:
The idea that they [Washington press correspondents] would wreck their access by asking a politician questions that he really doesn’t want to answer – “Isn’t your wife German?” (see above), “Can you give us evidence for your crazy pregnancy stories?” – is preposterous.
So I give you the above video, by the intrepid BBC political reporter, Nick Robinson. Watch him go for the jugular, and watch him not release his grip until the prey is whimpering, near-lifeless on the ground.
Nick Robinson, intrepid?
This really speaks more about the parlous state of political journalism in Washington D.C. than it does about anything else. So deferential are the Washington press corps to those in power – and Sullivan rightly refers to the recent annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner – that any hounding or questioning of a party leader must in itself seem dedicated and fearless. A closer attention to the specific question being asked, however, would have shown that Robinson’s approach was far from being brave or principled. Sullivan is right about the non-deferential tone of British political interviews being a positive thing, but dead wrong in singling out this particular establishment hatchet-job as the pinnacle of good journalism.
The BBC had a golden opportunity to ask some real questions of Nigel Farage, to delve into policy differences with the other parties or at least to engage in a bit of speculation and expectations-setting with regard to the upcoming European elections. But they weren’t interested in the policy discussion (the noble option) or in analysing the polls (the political infotainment option). They went instead for the classic hatchet job, the interview ambush that neither educates the informed viewer or grabs the attention of the casual viewer, serving instead only to give David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg some weak ammunition for their negative anti-UKIP political ads.
This was the cheap and tawdry approach taken by a news organisation (if this interview and other recent form is anything to go by) that is becoming increasingly lazy and only comfortable discussing the European Union debate through the existing lens of Labour vs Conservative, more Europe vs a little bit less Europe. The alternative – an end to British membership of the EU – is seen as so radical and threatening to the establishment that it must simply be ignored, or (when feigning ignorance is no longer possible) loudly ridiculed and discredited.
Polling day is on Thursday 22nd May. Soon we will know whether the Nick Robinson strategy has been enough to save the British political establishment from electoral humiliation.