This question is examined by the researchers in the #NewNews project. This research project, led by Joost van Spanje, focuses on the relationship between media coverage and new political parties. Rachid Azrout, one of the researchers in the project, explains: ‘In the Netherlands there are many new parties that don’t receive media coverage. Looking at the postwar era, we found that a total of 183 parties that participated in an election for the first time during this period. Of the parties in our sample, 80 were not even mentioned once in the national media, while only 33 parties made the news more than three times.’
Level of media coverage is decisive
These are not encouraging statistics for political newcomers, and Azrout expresses his concerns about this finding: ‘New parties are very important. They bring in new ideas and new voices and contribute to the health of our democracy. The media play an important role in their success. If voters don’t know about your party, they won’t vote for you.’ Thankfully, there are exceptions. The Farmer-Citizen Movement (BoerBurgerBeweging, BBB), created just four years ago, and New Social Contract (Nieuw Sociaal Contract, NSC), founded very recently, both play a major role in the upcoming elections.
The media attention a political party gets largely depends on whether developments are considered to have news value. This relates to what media consumers are likely to be interested in. Political controversy generally sells headlines, but that also depends on what consequences it has. ‘What happens to a small party has little impact on the broader political picture, so you don’t have to give it any real coverage. Established parties have it easier, as they have often been in power before, having been part of previous coalition governments. What happens to them has an impact on all viewers,’ Rachid explains.
Seats in parliament
So why is it that certain new parties do get media coverage? Azrout: ‘That is largely because some new parties have already had seats in parliament before. That may be a strange way to put it; but Pieter Omtzigt, for example, was a long-standing MP for the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) before founding his own party. So some new parties have split off from existing ones that already have seats in parliament, while GreenLeft (GroenLinks) and the Labour Party (PvdA) now have a joint list of candidates and are planning to merge. When you already have some name recognition, it makes it easier and more worthwhile for journalists to run a story on your party’s views.’
Raising your profile by focusing on a well-established topic
Another finding from the #NewNews project is that new political parties often raise their profile by focusing on a well-established topic that is readily picked up by the media. For example, by stridently opposing the political orthodoxy espoused by an established party. That offers journalists a clear narrative that can be slotted more easily into a political context. Rachid Azrout gives the following example: ‘Take the strategy used by Interest of the Netherlands (BVNL). They claim that the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) does not properly convey its liberal principles, and that they are advocating those principles in a purer form. BVNL is campaigning as the party of business, which is what the VVD has always been known as. Voters are familiar with the topic, making it easier for the party to garner media attention.
New parties can achieve electoral success by focusing on existing political fault lines, but sometimes also by doing the exact opposite: introducing new issues. The researchers found that legitimacy is key to this. When they specifically looked at green parties, they discovered that when a new green party highlights an environmental issue and an established party takes up this issue, this leads to greater media attention for the new party. When an established party takes up a new issue, this in fact legitimises the new party that first raised this important issue. Other research found that this is not merely an effect in terms of media attention, but actually influences voting behaviour. ‘The Dutch political party that has employed this strategy with the greatest success is Geert Wilders’ PVV. He has often made highly controversial statements, nearly of all which triggered a response from the established parties,’ Azrout says.
However, this strategy for seeking media attention can eventually also work against a party. When an established party decides to take up an issue first raised by a new party, this can initially legitimise the issue and thus the new party. But the established party may also steal the limelight from the new party on this issue, as a result of which the new party’s media coverage and electoral prospects take a tumble. Despite this tactic employed by established parties, Rachid Azrout believes that the emergence of new political parties nonetheless has positive consequences. ‘It’s obviously bad news for a new party when their voice gets drowned out in the political debate. But at least their ideas are not lost, as they have been adopted by a larger party. So the new party might not be successful at the ballot box, but they have successfully raised the issue they are passionate about. In this way, the party system is continuously refreshed.’