If you are a dedicated Ukip supporter, you’re unlikely to like the way you’re portrayed in Following Farage: The Ultimate Political Road Trip, even though Owen Bennett finds some nice things to say about both Winston McKenzie and Godfrey Bloom. That’s because Bennett recounts in amusing detail, often with the mesmerising quality of watching a car crash, Ukip members again and again veer from preppy populism into disorganisation, offensiveness or both.
Most of the time, the more detail there is, the worse things get (including Ukip’s quite remarkably ability to drown its own good news in controversies). However occasionally – as with the extended quotes from Winston McKenzie or the very warm reception Ukip conference gave to Kellie Mahoney which she talked about the struggles of being a transsexual – this approach brings out a more sympathetic side too.
Following Farage is like a travel book, save that the itinerary is political and the venues usually places whose tourist heydays are well behind them. As Owen Bennett says at the start, “In place of expertise, I offer you anecdotes. In place of objectivity, I offer you the opinions of a hack”.
There are plenty of those opinions, not only of Ukip but also of himself, his boss, his sometime newspaper proprietor Richard Desmond (whose ability to find money to donate to Ukip but not give his staff any pay increases comes in for a lot of criticism), along with sundry others.
But most of the opinions are about Ukip, such as of Ukip’s then Head of Press, Gawain Tower, of whom Owen Bennett writes, “He comes across as a complete buffoon… Of course, he is not dim – well, not all the time”.
Owen Bennett’s book also offers a good account of low-cost, minimal journalism side of the modern newspaper industry: how stories get written once and published across multiple local newspapers, then picked up online and rewritten with a new byline for the national press with the national title taking readership but adding little in the way of journalism to the story. As Bennett says of that phase of his own career, you would “see a story on the wires, nick it, change the intro slightly, put your name on it. I hated it.”
He’s also frank about how much he picked his stories and tone to fit what his bosses wanted. Writing of his move from the Express to the Mirror, Bennett says, “A few people remarked it must have been weird moving from a right-wing paper to a left-wing outlet, but it wasn’t. Instead of being paid to be sympathetic to Farage, I was now being paid to be sympathetic to Ed Miliband. Same game, different team.”
In between times he also penned this book, and thank goodness – because it’s a great, funny and illuminating read.
If you like this, you might also be interested in Flying Free by Nigel Farage.
Note: a review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher.