Storm in a Whisky Glass: A Particularly Bad Week on Scottish Political Twitter

As will come as a shock to absolutely nobody, something undignified happened on Twitter this week.

Normally, an unfortunate exchange on that 280 character at a time hellscape inhabited primarily by weirdo cat girls, oddities with anime profile pictures, and blokes with more chins than they will ever have dates would pass by unnoticed, like a needle in a massive pile of other pricks, but when it involves the Scottish First Minister and the BBC’s Scotland Editor, an unfortunate exchange is quickly elevated from the unremarkable to the must-see.

This particular stairheid rammy (ask that Scottish guy you went to uni with) started when Sarah Smith, the journo in question, said that First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, had “enjoyed the opportunity to set out her own lockdown rules.” A fairly innocuous statement and, one would have thought, somewhat of a truism for a First Minister whose stated goal is to have Scotland run as an independent country; not precisely a QED but it gets its mail at roughly the same time as a QED, if you catch my drift.

The FM took exception to this statement from Smith and took to Twitter to make her feelings clear. Following her response, the Scotland Editor attempted to clarify that she meant to say “embracing” by way of a not too subtle backtrack. However, notorious for her forthrightness, the First Minster lashed back saying that was still incorrect and rather frostily declared that “the matter is closed”.

Except that it wasn’t, was it?

Nope! For the sweaty army of keyboard warriors, their veins full of hot Irn-Bru, hearts full of righteous indignation, and brains half as full of cleverness as they believe, the FM’s closing of the matter was just the beginning. Smith was besieged by a swarm of these digital dullards clamouring for her to make a full North Korea-style televised apology, to lose her job, and presumably much worse. One can only imagine how tough it must have been for Sarah Smith to have this happen to her and this columnist extends professional solidarity to her.

It turned into such a stooshie (again, ask that Scottish guy you went to uni with) that even my own modest Twitter account got caught up in it.

As grim a spectacle as it may be, there is nevertheless an opportunity for growth that the public dialogue sorely needs in this particular moment of over-the-fence bellyaching.

The first is that politicians must recognise that they have a massive amount of influence on social media and should act accordingly.

Particularly in the case of the SNP, the way prominent politicians conduct themselves on Twitter, and other platforms, can often have serious repercussions that are entirely foreseeable.

By calling out Smith in such a public and blunt way, the First Minister directly caused the cybernats who, having been galvanised to despise the BBC in the trenches of the 2014 referendum on independence, to descend, as is their familiar attack pattern, on one of the best TV journos in the business.

It is by no means fair to blame the FM for the abhorrent treatment Smith received from her followers but their doing so is a fully predictable consequence of what she did. One must play the hand one is dealt and Nicola Sturgeon’s hands are unfortunately shackled to a rabble of unpleasant online individuals with a burning hatred of the BBC. It is not her fault, Nicola Sturgeon is a highly professional, skilled, and compassionate politician, but it is her problem; such is often the burden of public life. There is a lesson here for all politicians and the sooner they learn it the better.

Secondly, there is the issue of bad faith when dealing with the press that must be addressed. As Sky News found recently, levels of public trust in the media are appallingly low at present. Some of this is the fault of the press, there’s little doubt of that, but not all of it is of their own making.

The way politicians have conducted themselves with the media, from the way Boris treats journos to the SNP’s recently thwarted plans to make FOIs completely impotent, have certainly not helped the necessary relationship between politicians and those who help us know what they’re up to.

By interpreting “enjoyed” literally, i.e. to mean “derived pleasure from”, rather than its political meaning, that of “found political usefulness or advantage from” the First Minister, and those who took their line from her, have acted with a disappointing level of bad faith. To automatically assume the worst is to have not acted like an adult and to have ‘dragged’, so to speak, the whole issue online only compounds that impression.

The relationship between the media and decision-makers is a vital one, without it operating properly we can’t possibly maintain the transparency that makes our system an enviable one when it works, but this particular incident, and the myriad others that have happened, suggest that it is in dire need of some counselling.

Perhaps as we exit the COVID-19 tensions and approach normality, the tensions might abate? We must hope that cooler heads prevail and that the ecosystem can heal itself – it really is that important. One thing is for sure, sniping at each other on Twitter probably won’t help.


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