UKIP’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster, 2016
The UKIP billboard poster (Figure 19.1) that is the focus of our first case study used a cropped version of a photograph taken by the photojournalist Jeff Mitchell (a staff photographer for the picture agency Getty' Images) in October 2015. This photograph depicted a large group of predominantly' adult male Syrian and Afghan refugees being escorted by Slovenian police from the border between Croatia and Slovenia to the Brezice refugee camp. UKIP purchased a commercial license to use the photograph from Getty' Images. The photographic image fills the entire billboard and shows the refugees following a path between fields, from the upper left of the image down to its central foreground, producing a powerful impression of relentless human movement. Over the photographic image were superimposed the slogans ‘BREAKING POINT’ (in large red block capitals) and ‘The EU has failed us all’ and ‘We must break free of the EU and take back control of our borders’ (in smaller white font). This combination of image and text displaced the meaning of the photograph from being about the movement of a specific group of refugees in Slovenia (as described in its caption on the Getty Images website)2 to being about the purported effect of EU border policies on immigration into the UK. This shift in meaning also involved a shift in the function of the image from being a standard example of photojournalism (and therefore primarily valued for its documentary content) to a political concern to use the image to emphasise connotations of racialised otherness in relation to immigration.
A similar shift in the meaning of Mitchell’s photograph also occurred when the right-wing populist Hungarian Fidesz party used the same image for a later anti-immigration poster during the 2018 Hungarian parliamentary elections (Matamoros 2018). This poster presented the photograph with a large red English language stop sign over it. Fidesz and UKIP both used the non-white faces of the refugees depicted in Mitchell’s photograph to visually' embody their racialised conceptions of immigration. This use of the photograph meant that there was no need to explicitly' articulate the racism that underpinned their political viewpoints. Rather, the photographic image did this work for them.3 This meant that both Fidesz and UKIP could get across their racially charged message while also allowing them a degree of deniability' about their populist racist views.
Yet there are also differences between these two posters that are useful to draw out. If the Hungarian poster was not verbally explicit about its racialisation of immigration, it still made its opposition to non-white immigration into Hungary very clear through the use of a simple stop sign over an image of Syrian and Afghan refugees. In contrast to this, the message of UKIP’s poster is not so direct, nor is it so univocal. The slogan ‘BREAKING POINT’ is clearly meant to relate to the refugees shown in Mitchell’s photograph in that it frames them as a human force that has brought something to the ‘breaking point’. However, it is not exactly clear what is about to break. Is it the EU Schengen border or the UK border that is meant to be breaking? Nigel Farage seemed to answer this question in a radio interview given a number of day's after the unveiling of the poster, when he stated that the poster ‘was not about Britain’. Rather, ‘it was about Schengen, about the fact Schengen is breaking’ (quoted in Woodcock 2016). This suggests that UKIP intended the slogan ‘BREAKING POINT’ to refer to the EU border and for Mitchell’s photograph to epitomise the breaking of this border. However, it is apparent that UKIP also intended the poster to be about the UK. This is indicated by the poster’s other slogans, in which the people of the UK are referred to as an ‘us’ who have been ‘failed’ by the EU and a ‘we’ who ‘must break free of the EU and take back control of our borders’. Consequently, it can be suggested that UKIP intended there to be a duality' to the meaning of the slogan ‘BREAKING POINT’ and to their poster overall. The poster represented the EU border breaking under the weight of non-white immigration, but at the same time, it encouraged a sense of slippage between this framing of the EU border as a border out of control and the UK border. Crucial to this slippage between the EU and UK border was also the visual impact of the poster, in that the refugees it showed were intended to be perceived as moving roughly in the direction of the spectator and thus towards the UK.4
This leads us on to thinking more directly about the function of UKIP’s poster as disinformation. That the UKIP poster was partly intended to suggest that the refugees it showed were on their way to or even at the UK border means that the poster was disingenuous in its use of a photograph that actually showed refugees in Slovenia, who probably' hoped to eventually' reach Germany'. It was this disingenuousness and the intention to misinform it entailed that Buzzfeed pointed to through their headline: ‘These Refugees in UKIP’s Anti-EU Poster Are Actually in Slovenia’ (Waterson 2016). But this kind of observation should not be the only outcome of a critical analysis of UKIP’s poster as disinformation. As emphasised earlier in the chapter, there is also a need to contextualise the poster as an example of disinformation in terms of the racial meanings that it mobilised and was dependent on to have its intended effect. In this sense, the role of the analyst is not that of a journalist simply seeking to verify the ‘truthfulness’ or ‘falseness’ of an image they want to publish, but rather of someone who seeks to understand why' a particular example of disinformation was produced and had harmful effects under specific socio-political conditions that are, in this instance, significantly' defined by' racialised notions of nationhood.
Of particular significance when thinking about the ideological context for UKIP’s poster is the way that right-wing populist discourses define national belonging. As Wodak notes, populist nationalism in Europe often involves ‘a nativist notion of belonging’, which is ‘linked to a chauvinist and racialized concept of “the people” and “the nation’” (Wodak 2015, 47). Belonging to the nation necessarily means being ‘native’ and by' implication white. This also means that those defined as ‘non-natives’ are automatically excluded from and constructed as a threat to the national community' (Wodak 2015, 66). In line with these ideas, UKIP developed a political position that emphasised immigration as an EU-driven threat to the ‘native’ population of the
UK in terms of both the free movement of citizens from EU member states and also the supposed openness of EU borders to non-white immigration from beyond Europe. In other words, UKIP understood ‘free movement’ in the EU as both ‘an internal expanse where Eastern and Southern Europeans are alleged to be enjoying excessive access to Britain’s economic and social goods’ and also ‘as a conduit for dark-skinned refugees to march across uninhibited to the sweet fields of England’ (Valluvan & Kalva, 2019, 2394). This construction of‘dark-skinned refugees’ as a racialised threat to the UK originating from the EU is what UKIP’s poster was intended to mobilise and reinforce by giving it a powerful visual form. UKIP did this by using a photograph without concern for what this image depicted in documentary terms. More important for UKIP was what the non-white faces, gender, and number of refugees shown in the photograph could be made to imply within the context of a broader ‘Leave’ campaign that was ‘overdetermined by racism’ (Virdee & McGeever 2018, 1804).