Europe & the World

German-British Comparative Project: “Mediating Populism”

On the Dynamics between Media Coverage and Populism in the UK and Germany
Foto: MichaelGaida/Pixabay

Das Progressive Zentrum, in partnership with the think tank Demos from Great Britain and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, is exploring the role that traditional media play in both the legitimization and discreditation of populist parties in Germany and the UK. In addition, the influence which organizational decisions of media platforms may have on the public perception of news is analyzed.


The success of right-wing and left-wing populists is inextricably linked to the coverage they and their core issues receive in the media. In this vein, media capture has become a widespread and dangerous strategy by means of which populists seek to exercise manipulative influence on the direction of public debates. These insights are not new. Yet, in light of ever growing support for populist parties (note, for instance the recent election results in Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic) and the profound effects the digital transformation has on the media landscape, these observations remain highly topical and, indeed, beg a number of novel questions: How does the renaissance of populism transform power dynamics between politics and the media and what are the democratic implications resulting therefrom? What role does the media play in legitimizing and deconstructing populist ideologies? How do media outlets perceive their relationship with and role within politics in the wake of the digital age?

We seek to generate answers to these and other questions in the context of the novel German-British comparative project “Mediating Populism”. Together with our British partner think tank Demos and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in London, we have set ourselves the goal of analyzing the role – in particular – of traditional media when it comes to legitimizing and discrediting populist parties in Germany and Great Britain.

Between UKIP and the AfD: Targeting Populism in Great Britain and Germany

Against this background, a comparative view on Great Britain and Germany – both showcase examples of the rapid growth of populist movements across Europe – is of notable interest. In Britain, the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and its decisive role in triggering the Brexit vote vigorously illustrate the disruptive potential of seditious, right-wing populist politics. By virtue of exaggerated emotionalisation, simplification and, at times, blatant lies, UKIP has driven a whole nation – if not a whole confederation of states – into a highly uncertain future, before virtually disappearing from the political scene. The way UKIP and its agenda was portrayed and dealt with in the media, thereby, is widely acknowledged as one of the crucial factors underlying the electoral choices of UK citizens.

In Germany too, electoral accomplishments of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) – most recently with more than 12% in the general elections in September 2017 – raise questions as to the quality of the media debate on populist phenomena. For many observers, “AfD topics” such as immigration and security were boosted by the media to a disproportionately large extent, ultimately amplifying electoral support for the AfD. As a consequence, calls for limits to unfettered media discretion as far as the reprocessing of populist discourses is concerned grew louder lately. Yet, did the AfD really dictate the news agenda to the extent claimed by many observers?

Impact of the Digital Sphere

Similar framework conditions characterize both the German and British context: The growing relevance of the Internet as a source of political information compels traditional media to operate in a much more complex and competitive environment nowadays. Citizens are confronted with heterogeneous, obscure and at times unreliable sources of information. Patchwork realities come into existence which, in turn, compete with the informational consensus reflected in traditional media outlets. It becomes ever more important, in view of these trends, that media organizations preserve their role as information intermediaries and gatekeepers. Maneouvring through controversial public debates, they must find a way, above all, to cope with populist strategies relying on the very same attention-grabbing mechanisms that inform the practices of media producers. How can this be done successfully in the age of digital communication?

For journalists, editors and media producers, this raises fundamental questions as to media coverage of political events:

  • How much room may or rather must one give to populists?
  • How should deliberate provocations be dealt with which, while pertaining to populist communication strategies, are undoubtedly worthy of being reported on.
  • When do populist parties become entrenched in the public debate as a result of their consistent media presence? And may this possibly deal a blow to their anti-establishment credibility?

Project Progression

Together with journalists, editors and media producers, we will discuss and reflect on these questions by means of confidential workshops held both in London and in Berlin throughout November 2017. In addition, expert interviews and background research are conducted in the UK and Germany respectively. By spring 2018, the results obtained in this process will be consolidated, structured and ultimately released in the form of a joint publication focusing on the following aspects:

  • The evolution of journalistic values, norms and practices
  • Shifts in the relations between the media and politics on the one hand as well as media power and agenda-setting on the other
  • Basic trust in “the media” (the rejection of expert opinions, fake news and false reports)
  • Essential features of contemporary populist parties, campaigns and candidates (populist aspirations to represent the “will of the people”, their dissociation from established parties and politicians and their social media use)
  • Relevant examples for populist legitimization and discreditation in the media

Research on Populism: A Thematic Priority of Das Progressive Zentrum

The project “Mediating Populism” ties in rather seamlessly with the extensive research on populism which Das Progressive Zentrum has conducted thus far. In the event series Countering Populism and Political Disaffection (also involving Demos), we gathered the expertise of international specialists and channeled their know-how into strategy recommendations. Moreover, in a comparative policy brief with our partners from Terra Nova (Paris) and Volta (Milan), we analyzed the status of populist parties in France, Germany and Italy. What is more, our “Dialogue on Europe” Thinking Lab on Populism brings together six national perspectives from Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, France and Germany. Finally, populist phenomena in Germany have been addressed in the fact checking project “TruLies” as well as the Policy Brief on how to deal with populists in the German Bundestag (referred to in various German newspapers such as Die Zeit, Berliner Zeitung and Frankfurter Rundschau and in the Brussels-based news platform Politico).





Joris Niggemeier


Philipp Sälhoff


published on

9 March 2018