Far Right in the Media: Normalisation or contestation?

As radical right parties have risen across Europe they have been increasingly covered by journalists: Media makers focused on the lifestyle and the opinions of members of radical right parties giving them a center to express their agenda and problem definitions. But have journalists in this way contributed to the rise of those parties? Moreover, how should coverage of radical right parties look like?

“Young, beautiful, educated and pro-Nazi”, that was the headline of an article presenting the leader of AfD, the German far right party, in Newsit, one of the biggest Greek media websites. We can find similar examples of an increasing coverage of lifestyle of the Greek neonazi party Golden Dawn in Greek mainstream media: Articles on how the daughter of Golden Dawn leader lost weight and changed her style or speculations whether Ilias Kasidiris, spokesman of the party, will get married soon.

Aurelien Mondon, senior lecturer in French and comparative politics at University of Bath, in a series of articles, argued that the main problem with the media coverage of right-wing populist parties is that it is totally disproportionate and there is a fear by exaggerating their performance to legitimise and normalise them.

But do media play a role in the recent rise of radical right parties? Nikos Panagiotou, professor at the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication in Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, is clear: “Media contribute in the legitimization of the rhetoric and the agenda of far right, including the far right agenda in the wider anti-establishment trend of the recent years”.

The main theme researched by scholars of political and media studies is certainly the issue ownership. Many claim that media’s focus on issues like immigration and crime has benefited the radical right, especially when journalists or other politicians accept the problem definitions of the radical right. Nikos Xydakis, MP and parliamentary spokesman of SYRIZA in Greece, believes that the construction of issue ownership is the main way in which radical right parties win votes through media. If you are the one who determines the agenda on immigration, voters may think that they should vote for you to solve the problems created by immigration and the so-called refugee crisis. On the other hand, radical right parties don’t even have to be covered in a positive way: “The negative coverage can also have positive results as far right politicians can argue that they are victims of elitist media who spread lies about them”, says Xydakis. It seems either way, radical right parties can make use of media coverage for themselves.

Even the language media uses has an impact in the success of radical right parties. Thomas Siomos, journalist and PhD candidate in political sciences, finds there is a convergence in style between media and far right discourses. According to Xydakis, both discourses make use of simplification, polarization, provocative vocabulary, shouting instead of arguments, staged quarrels among others. Siomos says that media has prepared the public for the acceptance of extreme -previously excluded- views, then they focus on these parties creating an environment of “media interest” offering them publicity and presence in the public sphere.

Even mainstream politicians are taking over this language, Siomos observes: “These years we can see politicians that adjust their rhetoric to extreme positions in order to gain the attention of the media”.

How we can explain these changes in the media landscape? “The structure and the ownership of the media are essential”, says Edouard Gaudot, member of the editorial board of Green European Journal. He continues: “Media are profit-driven, they are not interested in the substance. In media terms, there are good clients and bad clients. They want to gather as much audience as possible and therefore they are looking for a boxing match, not for the news, participating in this way to the polarization of political life”.

Finally, can media cover differently radical right parties? Opinions are split. Some scholars are in favor of a media cordon sanitaire. NIkos Xydakis and Edouard Gaudot disagree: Anyone who is part of the political life and participates in elections should take part in tv shows and public debates, says Gaudot. Otherwise, those parties could claim victimization. “We need arguments, research and analysis of the concepts and the arguments of far right in order to contest effectively their claims. The crucial point is how we discuss, how we communicate our views. Political communication should be connected with the substance and stop being just a tool to win the impressions.” Xydakis states.

Nikos Panagiotou shares the opinion that media can deal with far right parties and politicians. According to him they can do so by revealing their true face without demonisation, by imposing a strict control on hate speech and racist discourse, by condemning violence and by challenging conspiracy theories.

Concluding, media might play a role in the rise of radical right parties but they are not the only or the main reason for it. Such a view would not only be simplistic but it would also reduce the responsibility of voters themselves. Radical right is a very complex phenomenon and its relation with the mainstream media is only one of the dimensions that we have to examine in order to understand it.

*The article was published in the “European Youth Media Days 2017 Special Edition” https://issuu.com/orange_magazine/docs/eymd_2017_magazine_v04

PhD candidate, School of Political Sciences, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Freelance writer.