Some time ago I had a good friend who moved into a charming little cottage in a charming little village perched on an estuary-mouth on the English coast. The village was known locally as ‘The Ferry’ and she found its inhabitants warm and welcoming. There was one topic, however, that caused their countenances to darken and their voices to grow ominous. “Whatever you do,” they’d say to my friend in a warning tone, whilst glancing fearfully towards a hall in the village centre that hosted, among other things, the meetings of the local residents’ committee, “whatever you do, don’t get involved in Ferry politics!”
I sometimes wonder if J.K. Rowling, the English-born bestselling author of the Harry Potter novels, has questioned the wisdom of getting involved in the politics of the charming little place to which she moved, back in 1993: Scotland, which is on the English coast too – right up on top of it – and also has a local residents’ committee, which holds meetings in the Scottish Parliament Building in Edinburgh.
Ever since she announced that she was donating a million pounds of her money to Better Together, the organisation that campaigned successfully for a ‘no’ vote in the referendum on Scottish independence last September, it seems J.K. has rarely been out of the newspapers. Often this is because she’s been in unseemly twitter spats with supporters of Scottish independence who’re narked about her intervention in the referendum.
There was another spat two days ago when the author attended the Rugby World Cup match between Scotland and Australia – which, against all expectations, Scotland came within a hair of winning. Indeed, Scotland would have won it if the South African referee Craig Joubert hadn’t made an error in the final minute and awarded a match-winning penalty kick to Australia. By the way, I’m not saying that because I’m biased towards Scotland. The sport’s governing body, World Rugby, have since said Joubert was wrong to give Australia the penalty.
In the midst of the excitement and eventual heartbreak, J.K. was exchanging tweets with the Glaswegian journalist, novelist and TV presenter Muriel Gray. Like J.K., Ms Gray is no friend of the Scottish-independence cause. Their musings about Scotland’s heroic but ultimately doomed rugby performance were interrupted by the arrival of a tweet from one Stuart Campbell, who calls himself ‘the Reverend’ Stuart Campbell to differentiate him from the football player Stuart Campbell. His Tweet told J.K. and Muriel bluntly: “You two can both f*** off. You don’t think we’re a nation at all.”
The Reverend Stuart Campbell is a former games designer and journalist and these days he runs a political website called Wings over Scotland. This is devoted to Scottish independence and to uncovering errors, inconsistencies and contradictions in the coverage that the mainstream British media gives to Scotland, to the independence cause and to its main proponent, the Scottish National Party. Nearly all the established media outlets north and south of the border hate the idea that Scotland might one day leave the United Kingdom and their Scottish coverage is pretty one-sided. The Reverend felt that someone had to challenge them on this coverage. He was, he said, “fed up of shouting at the TV when Newsnight Scotland was on.”
Wings over Scotland has a busy and lively twitter feed, but after the Reverend sent that particular tweet it got very busy. And lively. He groused that “Rowling’s set a million bed-wetters after me,” for soon he was being accused of being “vile”, “bitter and twisted”, “everything that’s wrong with Scotland”, “everything that’s wrong in a human,” a “narrow-minded tosspot”, “a bitter wank”, a “Neanderthal demagogue”, “the biggest fascist on twitter / planet”, “a dysfunctional f***wit” who eats “bile for breakfast”, etc.
At least there was one upside. “J.K.’s wee troll army,” he tweeted later, “have taken my mind off that clown Joubert.”
J.K. Rowling herself responded: “I know Scotland’s a nation. I live there, you see. I pay tax there and contribute more than bile there.” And it wasn’t long before Scottish National Party leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted herself: “Note to my fellow independence supporters. People who disagree are not anti-Scottish. Does our cause no good to hurl abuse (and it’s wrong).”
Predictably, the story was soon all over the media – starting in the UK edition of the Huffington Post, which ran the headline: J.K. ROWLING JUST PERFECTLY HANDLED A SCOTTISH RUGBY FAN’S MISDIRECTED ANGER. The Huffington Post headline was a fair indication of whose side subsequent newspaper articles would take: J.K. is lovely, the Reverend is ghastly. Poor old Muriel Gray’s role in the affair, incidentally, was soon forgotten.
Well, I like Wings over Scotland, which admittedly can be brutal but is no more brutal than the political and journalistic worlds that it scrutinises. And I also like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. Though not so much the later ones and definitely not Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. (I mean, what was going on there? All those horcruxes to destroy and all those sacred objects to track down… And Neville Longbottom producing the Sword of Gryffindor out of the Sorting Hat at the end – how did that happen? Jesus, J.K.!) So where do I stand regarding this stramash between the two?
I agree with Nicola Sturgeon. People are entitled to cheer on Scotland in a sports match if they want to. Even if they voted ‘no’ in the referendum to stop Scotland becoming independent. Yes, which is illogical because, strictly speaking, Scotland shouldn’t be participating in the Rugby World Cup at all because it isn’t an independent country like Australia or Japan or Italy are. But… What the hell? It’s only a game. (Not that it felt like only a game the other day, when Craig bloody Joubert blew his final whistle.) And I think the Reverend made an arse of himself when he sent that abusive tweet. To be fair, he did so at a traumatic moment and I suspect he’d consumed a few beverages by that point too. As I know only too well from personal experience, people say stupid things when they’re ‘tired and emotional’.
At the same time, though, the media coverage of this has been pretty hypocritical. For instance, J.K. has been cheered and the Reverend booed by journalists like Chris Deerin and Alex Massie, both of whom have taken the shilling from the Daily Mail, a newspaper that’s caused J.K. much distress in the past. In 2013 the Mail had to apologise to her and pay her damages after it misreported some comments she’d made about the congregation of a Scottish church where she’d worked part-time in the 1990s. She also hates the negativity with which the Mail portrays single mothers – as she was once – so much so that she made it the favourite reading matter of the Dursleys, the reactionary and oafish human family whom Harry Potter has to live with when he isn’t at Hogwarts.
One wonders how Britain’s mainly right-wing newspapers would treat J.K. these days if she hadn’t thrown her hat into the ring during the Scottish independence debate and come out as an opponent of the Scottish nationalists – because her previous political activity had been in support of another of those newspapers’ bête noirs. In 2008, she donated a million pounds to the Labour Party, run at the time by her friend and then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Much of the British press, which had been busy deriding, ridiculing and tormenting the hapless Brown, sneered at her for this. HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF DOWNING STREET was a typical headline. If J.K. had never opened her mouth about Scottish independence but had remained vocal in support of the Labour Party, I suspect many journalists now wouldn’t be treating her as a cool and courageous slayer of Scottish-independence trolls but as a demented old socialist bag-lady.
These days J.K. still supports Labour, though quietly. After this year’s general election, which saw the Scottish branch of the Labour Party – led by the inept Jim Murphy – lose 40 of its 41 previously-held seats in Scotland, she tried to console Murphy by making him an honorary member of the House of Gryffindor at Hogwarts. Hmmm. If Jim Murphy had been there at the time of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and had applied his talents to the climactic Battle of Hogwarts, I suspect Lord Voldemort would have won and would now be ruling the universe.
This might seem sacrilegious to those millions of pubescent schoolkids the world over who worship her as the creator of Harry Potter, but I don’t think J.K. is as sweet, pure and fluffy as her reputation suggests. She’s a shrewd and calculating operator, I reckon. When she entered the Scottish independence debate, she was quick to invoke her world-conquering franchise. She wrote about “a fringe of nationalists who like to demonise anyone who is not blindly and unquestionably pro-independence and I suspect, notwithstanding the fact that I’ve lived in Scotland for twenty-one years and plan to remain here for the rest of my life, that they might judge me ‘insufficiently’ Scottish to have a valid view… However, when people try to make this debate about the purity of your lineage, things start getting a little Death Eaterish for my taste.”
She didn’t say all supporters of independence were like Death Eaters – the fascistic cult of wizards in her Harry Potter novels, led by Voldemort, who promote the purity of the wizard race and despise other breeds, such as humans – but the press were only too happy to report that she had, with headlines like J.K. ROWLING CALLS THE SNP DEATH EATERS. And I’m sure that Rowling, with her past experiences of being misquoted by newspapers, knew what would happen when she used such loaded language.
J.K. also knows how to weaponise herself on behalf of the Labour Party. A few days before this year’s general election, when the polls were predicting that the Labour Party would suffer an absolute humping from the SNP in Scotland, J.K. happened to speak to the press about the twitter abuse she’d had from pro-independence supporters during the referendum campaign. Thus, a rash of J.K. ROWLING TALKS OF ABUSE FROM SNP TROLLS-type headlines appeared in the newspapers just before the Scottish public, a good proportion of whom were thinking about voting SNP rather than Labour, headed down to the polling stations. Perfect timing, I’d say.
To conclude. The Reverend should be sorry for behaving like a knob and next time, after a traumatic sporting event, he should think before he tweets. Apart from reasons of basic human civility, it’s in his own interests. The journalists of the British media loathe Wings over Scotland because it has the temerity to subject their pronouncements to forensic scrutiny. They’ll do anything for an opportunity to give its founder a kicking. And on this occasion, he certainly gave them an opportunity.
At the same time, I don’t think J.K. is as saintly as the newspapers make her out to be – and they only say she’s saintly when it suits their purposes. I’m not claiming that under her cuddly exterior she’s mean and ruthless, but I do think she has the guile to make a bloody formidable politician one day. Though by saying she has the makings of a good politician, I’m in danger of implying that she is mean and ruthless.
Incidentally, J.K., should you ever stumble across this blog-post and feel I’ve been unnecessarily harsh on your character, don’t worry. You can always chastise me by making me an honorary member of the House of Slytherin. Come to think of it, I’d like to be a member of the House of Slytherin. The kids in Slytherin are cool. They get to dress stylishly in black, and strut around, and sneer imperiously, and snarl things like, “You’re a dickhead, Ron Weasley!”
Yes, they’re far groovier than those wretched goody-two-shoes diddies in the House of Gryffindor. I mean, that’s where Jim Murphy hangs out, for Christ’s sake.
(c) Warner Bros / Heyday Films