Al Murray, the pub landlord, clearly wanted – to put it politely – to pour cold ale all over Nigel Farage’s South Thanet campaign when he decided back in January to stand against him.
His boast was that the country needed a leader who could wave a pint around and invent common sense solutions. Some of it was good old-fashioned humour. But there is no doubt that some of what he claimed in newspaper interviews was designed deliberately to mock Ukip immigration policies and the right-wing perspective. Why else would he choose an upside down £ sign as his party logo?
So what’s the problem? Well the company who made a television programme about his campaign that went out on election night was Avalon Entertainment. They claimed they had made a fly-on-the-wall programme about his campaign.
Scratch the surface and problems begin to emerge. First is that on the official return for the real-life campaign that Murray waged, he is listed as ‘party leader’. But his campaign officer was Tris Cotterill, who is Avalon’s ‘head of digital’ and his ‘treasurer’ was Chris Scott – Avalon’s head of marketing. Avalon are also Murray’s showbiz agents, so on this basis, this looks less like a real campaign and more like a programme-making stunt.
Unbelievably, perhaps, the Election Commission gave the party official recognition. Did they really know what they were doing?
It gets even murkier. The programme was actually commissioned by UKTV, which owns a clutch of television channels on Freeview. It went out on their entertainment channel, the improbably named Dave. And guess who owns UKTV? Well the 50 per cent shareholder – maybe you’ve guessed it – is the BBC, through its wholly-owned commercial subsidiary BBC Worldwide.
So put another way. The BBC commissioned a programme that centred on what was projected as a ‘real’ political campaign. Except that it was not. It was arguably instead a publicity stunt dreamed up by Avalon. And a main purpose was to undermine and heap odium on the Farage campaign in a highly-contested and deadly serious political process.
In the event, Murray attracted only 300 votes, far less than Farage’s margin of defeat. But there’s no way of telling how much damage this jolly jape inflicted on the real political process that was going on in Thanet and had central importance in the General Election.
There is abundant evidence that Avalon worked flat out to court as much publicity as they could for their campaign wheeze in both the traditional and social network media. Murray had enough clout (as the Avalon programme shows) to draw the full political press pack down to Thanet for at least two major photo-calls. And company ‘reporters’ interviewed real people about their voting intentions. The point is that it was not clearly a spoof.
In reality, it blurred the lines of choice in a crucial election seat. And funding was from the bloated coffers of one of the country’s most successful independent production companies who, in turn, were financed by BBC cash. This gave the campaign Murray considerable fire power beyond what normal candidates can afford. Some would argue this is precisely what electoral law is there to prevent.
It defies belief that any part of the the BBC (even if it was indirectly) commissioned such a programme. Effectively, they gave Murray a PR platform to ridicule the Farage campaign. The results can be seen on the BBC website.
The main programme did not go out until after the polling booths had closed but the damage was done by the pre-programme publicity, which was clearly a major thrust of the Avalon team’s activities.
The BBC has been under fire for its anti-Ukip stance for many years. How could they sanction such a stunt? Did they make equivalent programmes about the SNP or Labour? Maybe not.