Thursday, 15 July 2010

Reader Review: The Media and the Far Right in Western Europe

Giles Marshall reviews The Media and the Far Right in Western Europe by Antonis A. Ellinas.

By Giles Marshall,

How important is the media to the advance of western European far right parties? This is the crucial question asked by Antonis Ellinas in The Media and the Far Right in Western Europe. The British perspective might seem quite encouraging. Subjected to an hour of questions on the BBC’s ‘Question Time’, Nick Griffin emerged, during the programme, as a far weaker national leader than he entered it. The failure of his British National Party in the 2010 general election would seem to endorse this happy state of affairs. However, the British experience is at variance with the European ones analysed by Ellinas, just as the British polity seems, in any case, rather more resistant to far right advances.

Focusing on the role played by the media, Ellinas provides a close examination of the operation of the far right in four European countries – Austria, Germany, Greece and France – and considers the reasons for their success, or lack thereof. His study cases are carefully chosen, ranging from countries which represent undoubted high water marks of far right advancement in national politics (Austria through the Freedom Party, and France through the Front National), to a clear low water mark in Germany, and a more erratic path in the case of Greece.

Despite the difficulties of generalising from four such disparate examples, Ellinas successfully identifies common areas of analysis and cuts a swathe through the many other factors that arguably determine far right success. His history of the trajectory of the different far right parties is detailed and fascinating and his focus on the impact of the media is key to understanding the success of the far right. Ellinas’ explanation of media actions and pressures, and his overview of the changes in the media industry outlined in his first chapter are amongst some of his most important findings. He itemises what we might only hitherto have grasped in general terms – that the media have a ‘push-pull’ impact on the advance of the far right. They provide the publicity that allows many far right parties the initial impetus to leap into mainstream consciousness, and then provide the sensationalist approach to national identity issues that continues to give them the oxygen to survive. It is a lethal and thoughtless mix, and Ellinas’ identification of it should be required reading in every media company and study centre in Europe.

The strength of this impeccably researched book lies in its lucid use of an extremely wide range of sources, and its focus on a clearly defined aspect of far right success. It is a clearly academic book, and eschews any form of sensationalising, managing to project an admirable academic objectivity throughout. Although it can be heavy going for the general reader, the author’s analysis of the trajectory of the far right in each of his chosen countries is clearly articulated and adds much to any reader’s knowledge of the state of modern European politics. The capture by the right of the once liberal minded Freedom Party in Austria, for instance, provides a cautionary tale of far right tactics in their combination of effective opportunism provided by media reporting, and their tactical outmanoeuvring of more staid internal party opponents.

On a stylistic note, one might wish for fewer lengthy citations in parentheses that break up the flow of sentences in the book’s opening chapter and, occasionally, for simpler sentence structures. However, these are, on the whole, minor inconveniences. Most importantly, The Media and the Far Right in Western Europe represents a significant and valuable addition to the body of work available to study the rise of far right parties in western Europe, whilst also providing considerable food for thought about the way the media treat this phenomenon.

The Media and the Far Right in Western Europe, Antonis A. Ellinas (Cambridge University Press)

Giles Marshall is Head of Politics and Head of Sixth Form at Sutton Grammar School for Boys in London.

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