Mark McLaughlin says supporters and members of the SNP have a unique responsibility to condemn undue influence on STV news by MPs who should know better.
Some of those who leap on their high horse to smite the vicious Cybernats with a pithy “#civic #joyous” tweet seem to develop tunnel vision when it comes to highlighting abuse. A glance at the timelines of Nicola Sturgeon and Humza Yousaf and it’s quickly apparent that there is an abundance of zoomers on Twitter of all stripes. None seem particularly newsworthy, in fairness; but it seems odd to constantly highlight one and not the others. Apart from anything else, it’s now bone-achingly dull and often reheated when it’s a slow news day. Why feed the trolls with attention? Let the snivelling keyboard warriors sit in their pants in their bedroom enjoying all the attention they deserve – none.
But I fear this all too easy to say as a straight, white man with no religion and no public profile. There are, as ever, notable exceptions. In an interview with the BBC in January, for example, Ruth Davidson argued that homophobic comments were a form of abuse worthy of particular spotlight, as many of her younger followers had to see that it’s not something they should ever be forced to accept. This seems like a good rule. The only way to heal deep societal wounds like homophobia, racism and misogyny is to drag them into a harsh light. Exposing hatefulness to evidence can be an effective counterbalance to the platform it is given by social media.
However, it is important to distinguish between deep-rooted societal issues and people who just disagree with what commentators write. Being a journalist does not mean your readers aren’t allowed to make fun of you. Sorry, it just doesn’t. So when David Torrance somewhat clumsily expressed his opposition to the Scottish Six, wilful misinterpretation for comedic effect is fair game.
It is clear to every rational person that Mr Torrance’s argument was that the cost-benefit analysis on which a dedicated radio broadcast was justified could not be transposed onto an argument for the Scottish Six, as television broadcasting requires more resources. However, to condemn witticisms based on someone clumsily expressing themselves is to condemn a decent portion of social media. Taking the mickey out of columnists you disagree with isn’t abuse, and shouldn’t be lumped in with the genuinely horrendous abuse some people suffer because of who they are. There are gradations of iniquity, and journalists should resist the urge to allow a story about some Twitter numpty calling you a walnut to mutate into a crisis of the free press.
What does endanger the free press, however, is Members of Parliament for the governing party meeting with media executives to discuss a critical journalist.
When there is a spat in Scottish politics the arguments are often reductive, and nuance is the first casualty. But I must confess I’m struggling to see the nuance here. As far as can be discerned, the facts are the following: John Nicholson MP objected to Stephen Daisley promoting a Twitter account that has posted misogynist abuse of female politicians. Pete Wishart MP objected to Stephen Daisley tweeting about social media abuse directed at journalists in Scotland. Mr Nicolson and Mr Wishart met STV executives “to discuss STV’s importance as a leading broadcaster and commercial production company”. From July 16th, STV stopped publishing Daisley’s opinion pieces.
It’s difficult to analyse this chain of events without being reduced to hyperbole and sounding like the sort of person that says everything is “Orwellian”, as if referencing 1984 is the absolute pinnacle of insight. But what has happened here is not okay in a democratic society. It really isn’t.
Most of the blame lies with the spineless, lily-livered STV executives. The correct response would have been to first, politely tell John Nicholson and Pete Wishart to sod off and that they must have constituency work to do. Step two, give Stephen Daisley a pay rise, apportion a prominent section of the website for a daily column, and appoint him as political editor of the six o’clock news. Step three, ensure that his first story was about Members of Parliament seeking to influence the media.
As should be obvious, the only journalists worth reading are those who criticise the powerful.
And a portion of criticism also lies at the feet of John Nicholson and Pete Wishart. Anyone can understand a politician’s frustration at what they feel is unfair criticism. MPs are, contrary to popular opinion, just as human as the rest of us. But the oft-claimed “media bias” is usually the final howl of a failing politician. Corbyn and Trump are the contemporary examples. The way to counter criticism by the press is with arguments of your own.
To suggest that a journalist shouldn’t be in their job because of the views they hold is, to put it mildly, poor form. To suggest to a journalist’s boss that he shouldn’t be in his job is really quite sinister. Politicians have a particular duty to engage with the media in a responsible way. It is crucial to our democracy that politicians fear the media. Journalists should never be afraid of their politicians.
The content of what Stephen Daisley tweeted is almost irrelevant, and I’m reluctant to make the conversation about judging the journalist rather than the MPs. There are, however, a few things worth noting. There is a double standard on calling out misogynistic and sectarian abuse from those you disagree with, then promoting an account which does just that. As scandals go, it’s hardly Watergate. Journalists are imperfect; who knew?
More importantly, Mr Daisley has been a critical of politicians in all parties. Yes, he has written articles that say he is a ‘friend of Labour’, but he has been vociferous in criticising the antisemitism that has erupted in that party. He has criticised the Conservatives for proposed cuts to public services. He has criticised the ‘preponderance of zoomers’ in the SNP. And on a personal level, it was through a Stephen Daisley article that I was first introduced to Darren McGarvey, aka Loki, who will prove to be one of the most important voices in Scottish politics. Daisley has attracted a new audience to the STV website, and allows a wide range of opinion.
Above all else, if a journalist has annoyed those in power, the party of government and its supporters, they have done their job. Executives should give them a pay rise, not a demotion.
Prominent SNP politicians should make it very clear that this will never happen again. And people who vote SNP, like me, have a responsibility to say that this is not okay. For years we have defended the party against accusations of an inclination to silence dissenting voices. Indeed, given the lamentably predictable reaction on social media, this may be a boy-who-cried-wolf type scenario.
The normal histrionics about the ‘oppressive’ SNP are not justified. Most of the print media take an editorial stance ranging anywhere from profoundly skeptical to outright hostile of Nicola Sturgeon and her government. If the SNP have been suppressing dissent, they have been terrible at it. As if to prove the point, I eagerly await the columns from many a commentator dousing John Nicolson and Pete Wishart in justified opprobrium for their idiotic and seriously misjudged meddling. This is certainly not a criticism, but does rather render the idea of the SNP weeding out protesting voices as ridiculous on its face, until now.
Perhaps this was merely a catastrophic error of judgement by both the MPs and STV executives. Both come out of it looking dreadful. Supporters of the governing party have a particular responsibility to ensure that this genuinely unsettling and sinister turn of events is an anomaly. To see the divide about whether or not this is acceptable fall, once again, on constitutional lines is as depressing as it is predictable.
The British press can be vindictive, nasty and vicious. It has hacked the phones of a murdered school girl and besmirched the memory of dead football fans at Hillsborough. For every Ian Hislop there are two Kelvin McKenzies. But that same media also brought us the expenses scandal (Telegraph) and campaigned for justice for Stephen Lawrence (Daily Mail).
It is easy to defend free speech that you agree with. We don’t have a pretty press, but we do have a free press. Politicians and the public must ensure it stays that way.