Recently I wrote about Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling’s decision to donate a million pounds to Better Together, the group campaigning for a ‘No’ vote in this September’s referendum on Scottish independence. Since the donation was announced the Scottish media has been full of reports about Rowling receiving abuse online from ‘Cybernats’, the nickname given to pro-independence supporters who take to Internet forums, the Twitter-sphere and the opinion threads of newspaper websites to vociferously air their views.
Last week, Scottish politics was also witness to Lally-gate. This involved Clare Lally, mother of a disabled child, who contributes to the Scottish Labour Party’s shadow cabinet as a ‘Carers’ Champion’. There’s been speculation too – incorrect speculation – on pro-Scottish-independence websites that she’s Claire (with an ‘i’) Lally, who’s the daughter of the Labour Party’s former Lord Provost of Glasgow, Pat Lally. At a recent Better Together campaign-launch, Clare Lally was introduced onstage as an ‘ordinary’ woman who wanted the union between Scotland and England to continue. She gave a powerful speech arguing that Scotland’s National Health Service, so important for her child’s wellbeing, was better served by Scotland remaining in the UK.
Campbell Gunn, an advisor to Alex Salmond, Scottish National Party leader and most prominent figure in the Yes campaign, subsequently contacted a newspaper and claimed that Better Together was being disingenuous in presenting Clare Lally as an ordinary member of the public. She was, Gunn said, involved in the Labour Party and also Pat Lally’s daughter. However, Gunn – who, as a former newspaper editor, should have been more scrupulous about checking his facts – had got this information from a pro-independence website. He was wrong in identifying Clare Lally as Claire Lally. Also, the idea that as a Labour activist she isn’t an ‘ordinary’ person is debatable at least. Does dabbling in politics in your free time, as opposed to being a politician or a paid political campaigner or aide, strip you of your right to call yourself an ordinary citizen?
Once his mistake was pointed out, Gunn apologised to Lally, though she chose not to accept his apology. Meanwhile, Lally received online abuse from certain Cybernats who were riled by what they’d read about her on the Internet. This prompted some of the press to allege that Gunn, and by extension Salmond himself, had coordinated a ‘smear’ campaign against Lally. Looking at the evidence, I can’t see how this is true because Gunn seems only to have reacted to the same online information that the anti-Lally Cybernats reacted to. There’s no evidence that he organised other people to do anything. He did brief a newspaper about her, at least partly inaccurately, which he apologised for.
However, late last week the press and many politicians were in uproar. John McTernan – an advisor and Director of Political Operations to Tony Blair from 2004 to 2007, and later a communications director to Julia Gillard when she was Australian Prime Minister – appeared on a TV current-affairs show and insisted that the online abuse levelled at J.K. Rowling, not just Clare Lally, had been orchestrated by the Scottish National Party too.
Before I write anything further, let me state unequivocally that anyone tweeting or posting online threats or abuse against J.K. Rowling, or Clare Lally, or anybody else, is an arsehole. I read on the BBC news website yesterday that the police are investigating the abuse against Rowling, and that’s good. I hope they do the same against anyone who slandered Lally.
However, I would like to discuss certain myths that have appeared about the Cybernat phenomenon and about the Internet’s effect on Scottish politics and on politics generally. It suits the agenda of most of the mainstream media in Scotland, which is overwhelmingly anti-independence, and it suits most of the main political parties in Britain, in whose interests it is for the Union to continue, that these myths should be accepted as fact. Here are seven such myths, plus my reasons for believing why they are myths – nothing more.
One. We were all much nicer before the Internet came along.
Well, that’s ridiculous to anybody who can remember life before the mid-1990s. Of course people have always gossiped maliciously, name-called, bitched, backstabbed, slandered and assassinated other people’s characters. It’s been a sad fact of life for as long as human beings have lived in communities. I come from a small town with about 8000 inhabitants, so I can testify to what happens when folk gather in groups of more than one and the conversation turns to the foibles of their neighbours. The complication imposed by the Internet – where people gather in virtual communities and chatter scurrilously in threads and forums – is that it creates an online record of what’s been said. If the poison isn’t spat into the victim’s face but spat behind his or her back, it’s still there for the victim to find. Or for someone else to bring to the victim’s attention.
By the way, I find it hilarious that the people making some of the most indignant noises about online abuse are the political community, who’ve been maliciously gossiping, name-calling, bitching, backstabbing, slandering and assassinating characters since the days of Machiavelli, if not since long before. At least, they’re indignant when they think it’s in their interests to be indignant. It’s particularly ironic that John McTernan has been expressing his indignation so loudly, considering the past form he has in this area. If you’re to believe a report about his period of employment with Julia Gillard that appeared last year on the Australian ABC news website, “he encouraged Labor staffers to mobilise so-called ‘Twitter armies’ to ridicule the Tony Abbot-led opposition and attack individual Coalition MPs online, which he would later point out to journalists as proof of public opinion.” (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-12-11/leaked-emails-reveal-aggressive-style-of-john-mcternan/5149158.) Which makes his outburst last week a bit rich.
Two. The only abuse online is about Scottish independence.
If you don’t use the Internet that much – and coming from a rural background, I know many people who don’t – and depend on traditional Scottish newspapers for your information, you could be forgiven for assuming this recently. It’s twaddle, of course. You only have to read the comments that quickly fasten themselves, like flies to a piece of excrement, to the threads below any political story on a news website to realise this. In most cases the story has nothing to do with Scotland. An article the other day on the Guardian online, in which Helena Bonham Carter expressed admiration for David Cameron, attracted some epigrams you wouldn’t repeat in front of your grandmother – one described the Conservative PM as a ‘gammon-faced p***k’. Meanwhile, any article in the Daily Telegraph or the Spectator that touches on the topics of immigration, multiculturalism or political correctness is guaranteed to cause an outbreak of racist sniping underneath. I can’t bring myself to look at what readers post on the Daily Mail or Daily Express websites, for fear of losing all faith in humanity.
And this isn’t confined to politics. Observer columnist Kevin McKenna noted the other day that “(w)hat some of Scotland’s top football writers, such as Graham Spiers and Tom English, have had to endure on Twitter these past few years far eclipses in volume and intensity anything encountered in the referendum campaign.” (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/14/better-together-mistakes-scottish-independence.)
Three. The online referendum-campaign abuse all comes from Cybernats.
Here is more misogynistic abuse I’ve seen flying around the Internet during the past week, since news of J.K. Rowling’s donation broke:
“…beat it ya ugly cow…”
“…why don’t you f*** off? That way you might start being a credit to your country.”
“…up your hairy arse.”
“…does ma tits in, get off the f***ing tv ya slut!”
“…what a bitter wee wummin she is. Typical… selfish boot. Begone bitch!”
However, none of these comments were made about Rowling or Lally. They were directed at Nicola Sturgeon, Alec Salmond’s deputy, by unionists. It doesn’t surprise me that she gets this abuse, considering that the No campaign has the support of unsavoury outfits like the Scottish Defence League, the British National Party, the Scottish Orange Order and UKIP. Incidentally, there are vast amounts of abuse online aimed at Salmond himself and I’ve also seen invective against other well-known figures who support independence, such as Pat Kane and Hardeep Singh Kohli.
However, the mainstream Scottish media and pro-Union politicians seem happy to ignore this side of things. It goes, after all, against the narrative they’ve been pushing in the referendum campaign, i.e. that Scottish cyberspace is infested with nasty Cybernats attacking and bullying nice, peaceful Unionists – and that’s the only online bile there is.
Four. All the J.K. Rowling abuse came from Cybernats.
No doubt some or a lot of it did, but not all of it. At the time a leading Scottish Liberal Democrat activist retweeted an offensive anti-Rowling comment and asked, “Is this the sort of Scotland we want?” If she’d actually checked the tweet, she’d have found that the perpetrator was an Irish guy, with strong Irish republican and pro-Palestinian sympathies, who lives in England. So her question about Scotland was somewhat redundant. Also, when the Glasgow tabloid the Daily Record tracked down another person who’d sent offensive tweets about Rowling, he claimed not to have political views one way or the other in the referendum debate and described himself as a ‘wind-up merchant’. (http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/troll-claims-joking-sent-vile-3685196.)
So the mainstream media and pro-Union politicians can’t claim that all the anti-Rowling abuse came from SNP and Scottish-independence supporters. There are plenty of idiots out there, with no interest in politics, who are happy to stir things. And though I don’t hold political parties in high regard generally, I don’t think they can be held responsible for the ravings of idiots.
Incidentally, as I’ve said before, anti-English sentiment in Scotland isn’t solely the property of people (a minority of people, I’d hope) who support independence. In my time I’ve met folk with impeccable Labour-supporting or Conservative-supporting credentials, and who’ll surely be voting ‘no’ this September, who didn’t need much encouragement before they went running off at the mouth about ‘them bastard English’.
Five. Thanks to the Internet, you can no longer have proper democratic discussion.
It’s significant that the man credited with inventing the term ‘Cybernat’ to describe supporters of Scottish independence who are active online is former Labour Party MP / MSP George Foulkes, or Lord Foulkes of Cumnock as he calls himself these days. He’s precisely the sort of pompous old-school political balloon who isn’t used to having his pronouncements from on-high challenged by the great unwashed, as they are nowadays, instantly, via social media. Despite the presence of many online basket-cases, I generally find it refreshing that you now have the freedom to, immediately, get back at some self-important politician or political journalist by firing off a tweet, email or thread-comment. It feels like the Internet brings democracy and political debate a little closer to ‘the people’. Which is surely a good thing these days when the political culture of Westminster seems so remote from and out-of-touch to ordinary people in all other respects.
For the likes of Lord Foulkes, of course, electronic media’s ability to bring down the barriers between the politicos and the plebs is something to be lamented, not celebrated. Neither is the new media popular among those traditional disseminators of news and views, the newspapers – who are seeing their readership figures decline precipitously as more people turn to the Internet for information. So don’t expect this issue to get a fair hearing, either.
Six. Those Cybernats have poisoned the political debate in Scotland.
The Herald journalist Iain MacWhirter, who had the thankless job of reasoning with John McTernan on TV last week, summed things up. He likened the Internet to a sewer where you’ll find mindless abuse aimed at anyone and everyone, anything and everything, if you go looking for it. Unfortunately, the mainstream media only wants to find, and hold up for public scrutiny, examples of the effluent that’s flowing from extremists on the Yes side because that suits their agenda. A blind eye is turned towards the effluent flowing from extremists on the No side.
But this online crap doesn’t have to intrude on the independence debate. We can get on with meaningful discussion of the issues, listening only to contributions made by people who have brains. Indeed, there were good pieces last week by Pat Kane in the Independent and by Mairi McFadyen at the artistic campaign group the National Collective, which responded to J.K. Rowling’s stance with grace and decency, whilst gently disagreeing with some of the points she made about independence. There was also a thoughtful article, in favour of a Yes vote, by Deborah Orr in the Guardian the other day. I don’t know if the No side has produced any pieces with a similar eloquence – but I’m sure in the 90-plus days remaining until the referendum, the well-known novelist and No supporter Alan Massie can get off his bum and write a couple.
However, a civilised discussion will be difficult if pro-Union journalists and politicians insist on delving into the Internet sewage pipe in the hope of finding more pieces of tartan excrement that’ll advance their cause and / or advance their careers. (And meanwhile, those many pieces of Union Jack-patterned excrement bobbing around online will continue to be ignored.)
Seven. Those Cybernats have whipped up so much hatred in Scotland that we’re all going to die.
This seems to be a theme with Alan Cochrane, the curiously passive-aggressive Scotland correspondent in the Daily Telegraph. When Cochrane isn’t penning furious pieces about the evils of independence, the SNP, Alex Salmond, etc. while steam pours out of his ears, he affects a piteous tone and laments about how lovely and peaceful Scotland used to be, before this horrible referendum and these horrible Cybernats came along. Now everyone’s at everyone else’s throats and as a result Scotland is going to be scarred by divisions forever. Everything about this referendum is so divisive, cry Cochrane and his ilk. Divisive!
Well, I’ve heard discussions about independence in the street, in the pub, even occasionally in my Dad’s kitchen, but I have yet to see any aggression or violence. I haven’t even heard anyone raise their voice. If you really want a political issue that was divisive, to the point where it generated mass violence, you should look back to the miners’ strike or to the poll-tax riot in London – both of which happened during the reign of Margaret Thatcher, the great mother-goddess of the Conservative Party, the Daily Telegraph and Alan Cochrane. For people who remember those days, this bleating now by unionist journalists and politicians about the divisiveness of the independence debate is so much guff.
Maybe what’s disconcerting for the political and media establishments is the fact that a lot of ordinary people are actually thinking about, talking about, being engaged by the issue. It looks like the turnout on the referendum day could be astronomical – the highest voting turnout in Britain in decades. This rather upsets the establishment narrative that nowadays the public aren’t interested in (and / or are too stupid to be interested in) politics.
Meanwhile, a recent article by Alex Massie – son of Alan – in the Spectator made the following point: “If Scotland’s independence campaign is notable for anything it is unusual for being remarkably civilised. Violence, generally speaking, has no more than 140 characters. No-one has died. No-one anticipates, I think, civil unrest regardless of the result in September.” (http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/2014/06/the-shocking-secret-truth-about-scotlands-independence-debate-it-is-civilised/.) Those politicians, activists, journalists, bloggers and political anoraks who live in an overheated online bubble may not realise this, however. Perhaps they need to take some time off from their keyboards and get out of their bedrooms.