Just as the UK Independence Party has forced the mainstream parties to rethink their futures, so it should have left the media troubled by self-doubt over their faltering powers as political king-makers.
Ukip enjoyed its remarkable success at the European and local elections without the backing of a single national newspaper.
A day ahead of the elections, the Daily Mail, surely a paper of choice for many Ukip supporters, warned readers that voting for Nigel Farage’s party would be “profoundly counterproductive”. On election morning, The Daily Telegraph’s leader was headlined: “Voting for Ukip will give Brussels more power”. Even the obsessively Eurosceptic Daily Express told readers that the Tories were the “only party” likely to offer a referendum on EU membership.
Ukip achieved its historic gains in the face of all this opposition and palpable hostility from the major broadcasters.
James O’Brien took Mr Farage to pieces on national radio station LBC, where the political leader made an unsavoury comment about Romanian neighbours, for which he had to apologise. The wider media celebrated the interview as a “car crash”. Telegraph blogger Dan Hodges concluded that the gaffe “effectively finished Farage’s career”. It hasn’t turned out like that.
At the BBC, the head of the newsroom, Mary Hockaday, felt the need to warn journalists not to “sound off about things in an openly partisan way”, after Jasmine Lawrence, a channel editor at BBC News, used her Twitter account to jump on a “WhyImVotingUkip” hashtag designed to humiliate the party: “To stand up for white, middle class, middle aged men w sexist/racist views, totally under-represented in politics today,” she tweeted.
In a wittier contribution to the same thread, James McMahon, editor of rock magazine Kerrang!, offered: “Because I’m worried black people will start breeding with gay people and we’ll create a master race of amazing dancers.” But the hashtag only epitomised how these elections were as sobering for new media platforms as they were for traditional news groups. By Friday morning on Twitter, London-based comedian Rob Heeney professed himself “genuinely bewildered” that the site’s bon mots “didn’t have any effect whatsoever”.
It wouldn’t be social media “wot lost it” for Ukip.
Elections were supposed to have changed. Remember how Barack Obama’s historic presidential victory of 2008 was supposed to have altered the landscape of political campaigning for ever? From then on, declared the wonks, the only way to success was to exploit every technological means of mobilising support on social media.
Ukip’s most successful election campaign ever stumbled from one media disaster to the next, as one party figure after another was exposed for offensive, outdated views. What must David Axelrod, the American political guru who steered Mr Obama to victory and is now advising Ed Miliband, have made of it?
When Ukip tried to take control of its own media messaging with a poster campaign, it ran into another brick wall. The adverts – claiming “British workers are hit hard by unlimited cheap labour” – were promptly denounced as racist in the newspapers and heavily spoofed online. When Ukip organised a “carnival” in Croydon to demonstrate its diversity, the PR event was rightly ridiculed throughout the media as a “farce”.
The one media asset Ukip possessed, of course, was Mr Farage himself. By almost universal agreement a highly effective television communicator, he found himself repeatedly invited on to the BBC’s Question Time and has always been happy to have the cameras follow him into the pub to watch him raise a glass. Never mind Twitter and Facebook, posing with a pint has been Ukip’s version of social campaigning.
Mr Farage is a good broadcaster. He may have been demolished in the LBC interview but he previously outperformed Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in two live debates, one for LBC/Sky and the other on the BBC. The Ukip leader has also written regular columns for the Express and The Independent.
And that’s the other side of the relationship between Ukip and the media. At a time when the electorate complains of a lack of distinction between the main parties and their leaders, Mr Farage and Ukip gave journalists a compelling story. News organisations may have stopped short of supporting the new contender – and in the main they actively poured scorn on its ambitions – but they kept Ukip in the public gaze with all the orchestration of Barnum & Bailey, banging the drum for an outlandish new arrival in the political circus.
For the press, Ukip injected new drama into an otherwise dull narrative. The result of its blanket coverage was that each negative headline contributed to the sense of Ukip as a growing force. Without this, the turnout last Thursday would have been even lower than the pitiful 36 per cent who made it to the polls; but it doesn’t seem as though the media were effective in getting out the anti-Ukip vote.
Next year’s general election will be different, as the chastened major parties compete for the bigger prize. Then we may see how Mr Axelrod and the new advances in communications technology can influence the vote.
Ukip needs to maintain its momentum. News organisations will have a big part to play in this, not least with Mr Farage having clearly staked his claim for a place in any televised leaders’ debates. But the old idea that the media sit like Roman emperors with the power to decide elections has been called into question as never before.