FROM SUNDAY HERALD 30/6/14
One of the most depressing episodes in the entire referendum campaign was June’s cybernat scare. Normally sensible people took to trawling the sewers of the internet for vile abuse, reposting it and then claiming it was an “SNP-co-ordinated cybernat” attack on women in public life, including JK Rowling. One of the most mild-mannered men in Scottish journalism, Campbell Gunn, was recast as a mad Malcolm Tucker, orchestrating abuse from his lair in Bute House. Then it emerged one of his arch critics, the Unionist spin doctor John McTernan, had been allegedly been issuing real Tuckerite vileness. The biter bit.
It was all horribly like an episode of the BBC political satire The Thick Of It. Peak Twitter occurred when not only was Good Morning Scotland all about cybernats, but BBC Scotland’s phone-in programme Morning Call devoted an entire hour to discussing social media exchanges that it could not repeat. In my recent publication Democracy In The Dark, I warn that the decline of the civilising influence of newspapers could lead to a public realm dominated by poisonous Twitter streams. I think we kind of saw a glimpse of that last week.
And yes, mea culpa. I got caught up in it as well, though unlike most of the twitterati I avoid swearing on social media or abusing people – for the obvious reason that it’s a published record and not a chat in the pub. Indeed, there was breathtaking hypocrisy as some very prominent tweeters, whose ever second word is f***, attacked SNP twits for using bad language.
At one point I issued an admittedly rather pompous tweet for all sides to stop calling each other names and grow up – the world is watching – only for the Shadow Scottish Secretary Margaret Curran to accuse me of aiding and abetting misogyny by “telling women to grow up”. There is simply no answer to that.
So, what exactly was going on in the week of the Great Twit? Well, some alleged SNP supporters called JK Rowling some pretty nasty names after it emerged she had donated £1 million to the No campaign.
The donation was not entirely unexpected since she is a long-time Labour supporter – but some isolated individuals unconnected to any party took exaggerated offence. Some 18 allegedly cybernat tweeters were identified by the Better Together campaign, who posted and reposted their messages across the internet. One of them was actually a charity, Dignity Scotland, which claimed its Twitter account had been hacked – another ironic dimension to this very, very post-modern media row.
Rowling was called the usual Neanderthal litany of names. These people have a limited vocabulary – but there were no actual threats so far as I could see. No woman in public life will be unfamiliar with the language used, because the sad reality is that almost all women in public life are subject to misogynistic hate speak – Nicola Sturgeon in particular, whose inbox is full of this stuff, including death threats. A number of Yes-supporting women, to my certain knowledge, wanted to talk about this last week but simply feared the consequences.
You find what you look for on the internet, but to claim as the Labour spin doctor John McTernan did on STV’s Scotland Tonight that this was “co-ordinated” by the SNP in a conscious campaign of intimidation of JK Rowling was absurd. The SNP hate this stuff because they know how damaging it is, and have been trying to stamp it out for years. But unless the tweeters are actually members of the Scottish National Party – and few, if any, apparently are – there’s little they can do about it. It’s a little like blaming the Roman Catholic Church for sectarian remarks on republican websites – it can condemn but not censor.
This is a free society and one of the penalties of freedom is that people are free to be routinely abusive. This handful of foul-mouthed social misfits sitting in their bedrooms issuing scatological tweets to their three-and-a-half followers were suddenly being spoken of in the Daily Mail as if they were spokesmen for Scotland.
It is a particular problem for the Nationalists because there are so many in the UK and the Scottish press who seize on every opportunity to present Scottish Nationalism in a grim and negative light – as we saw with the New Statesman’s editor Jason Cowley in the infamous “blood and soil nationalism” exchange with Better Together’s Alistair Darling a fortnight ago.
Anything that appears to show anti-English racialism or offensive cybernattery is liable to find its way on to the front pages – as did the story that the First Minister’s special advisor Campbell Gunn had been accused of orchestrating the abuse of “ordinary mother-of-two” Clare Lally.
For 40 years, Gunn was the political editor of the Sunday Post and one of the most popular figures in Scottish journalism. Since he became one of Alex Salmond’s special advisers he has taken to issuing email corrections to stories that he believes his former colleagues have got wrong. Last week he issued an email saying: “You are no doubt aware that the ‘mother of two’ who described herself as ‘just a normal person’ in The Telegraph today is actually a member of Labour’s Shadow Cabinet and daughter-in-law of former Labour Lord Provost of Glasgow Pat Lally.” She wasn’t Lally’s daughter-in-law.
Gunn apologised as soon as he realised his mistake, but it was claimed he had been organising a smear campaign on behalf of the First Minister, and even implied that he was somehow morally responsible for the abuse of JK Rowling.
The Daily Mail’s headline for this story read: “Mother of disabled child trashed by internet trolls for opposing independence.” Ms Lally – who had been called a “quisling” and a “liar” for exploiting her disabled child for political purposes – is a long-term Labour activist who sits on the Shadow Cabinet as a “carer’s champion”. Labour said Gunn had breached the code of conduct for special advisers, but getting someone’s name wrong hardly seems a hanging offence.
Now, there is little doubt this is having an impact on support for independence, especially among women. If they are reading day after day about “cybernats” abusing women, how are they going to be persuaded that independence is a campaign worth supporting? The Yes Scotland strategist Stephen Noon urged his followers to ignore attempts to suggest the SNP was responsible for so-called cybernats. “Keep a spring in our step … and it will backfire”. Well, I’m not sure a little righteous anger would go amiss. In my view people who trawl the internet looking for misogynistic and other abuse and then use it in a political spin campaign are conniving in the spread and dissemination of this abuse. This is not #everydaysexism we’re talking about.
But maybe he’s right. On Thursday McTernan was himself outed for allegedly using foul language worthy of Malcolm Tucker, left, online. Reports from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation said he organised “Twitter armies” to denigrate opponents when he was advising the then Australian PM Julia Gillard three years ago. Those who live by the tweet, die by the tweet.