Wednesday, 23 April 2014

A Fool Moon Rising

It is an interesting thing, Twitter. Interesting in the speed at which people can respond to issues, interesting in the discussions which can take place and the news that happens while you watch and fascinating to see memes or trends unfold in front of you. It is curiously diverting in the level of access that it gives to people to contact politicians, celebrity, footballers and ordinary folk like most of you and me.  It is one of the biggest experiments in the democratisation of one-to-one communication in human history, with a future path – including the inevitable end – that no-one can predict with any level of accuracy.

 That raises the level of expectation and assumption that all people have the right to contact anyone they want and not be challenged, ignored or blocked, as if the UN Declaration on Human Rights has been amended and extended from freedom of expression to include, "freedom to be heard and acknowledged on Twitter".  Never has the phrase “freedom of speech” been bastardised and thrown around by so many who seem certain the right applies only to them.

I support absolutely the right to freedom of expression, but I also uphold the view that not every view which is expressed need have an audience, or garner a response. This is how I conduct my Twitter. Despite standing for election, I am not a politician, I am an individual. I have never been employed in any capacity through politics and that means I don't have to put up with people for whom a full moon is a call to arms.

I don't have to respond or give free access to people who say I "look like a chipmunk" or various other oh so witty rebukes.  I don't respect them as individuals, and quite frankly, I don't have to. They are trolls. I am quite entitled not to have to withstand such nonsense.

However, you won't see me in the Daily Mail complaining about the unfairness of it all in a paper that disgraces itself daily. That would be rank hypocrisy. I wouldn't alternately rebuke the Daily Mail for its practises then use it as instrument to lament my woes.

During the Cowdenbeath by-election I was subjected to an absolute barrage of abuse. I didn't respond to most of it because why bother, but at times I was tempted to tweet back and none too politely.  I found out the name of one of the people who was tweeting and re-tweeting some of the abusive nonsense - and noticed her interesting sideline in casual racism - but I didn't expose her. I could have.

In a bizarre demonstration of hopeless naivety, this particular individual also chose to name her account as an homage to her place of employment.  30 seconds on Google revealed her likely workplace.  I could have reported her despicable conduct to her employers, a major UK public sector organisation.  But unlike others, I didn't.

I was also trolled continuously by the Labour Party and by elected Labour politicians. I do think that a political party tweeting where I spent the night is disgusting. It also showed they were trawling and monitoring  the social media of people I frequently correspond with as the tweet that contained my whereabouts did not originate from me.

Is it any wonder more ”ordinary” people do not put our heads above the parapet when the level of bile which is directed at us is about our relationships, our appearance, our private lives, our friendships, our dress sense, our eating habits  to the point where we sleep at night is considered fair game? To have a political party acting as an attack dog on social media is to open the floodgates and to say to their supporters that this kind of behaviour is acceptable.  It isn't.

The Labour Party also kept on record tweets I sent in 2012.  They didn't task some whey-faced intern to pull an all-nighter hunched over their keyboard and dig out what they could about me -though they did that too later - they had them captured hours after the fact and kept them on record since. In 2012 I was not a candidate, I was not an elected politician – I was just one of thousands of people in this country saying what I thought via social media - and yet they were capturing and storing information on me. What do they have on you?

Put aside for the moment the complete innocuousness of the tweets of mine they stored 'just in case' and consider just how anti-democratic and self-defeating this is. We frequently ask for politicians to be human, yet castigate them for mistakes or experiments which might have happened in a callow youth, or earlier on in their lives. What about rehabilitation? Do we not create a more socially just country when we bring in people who have more experience of life than the PPE Oxbridge educated types who dominate our political landscape at Westminster and went straight from university, to researcher to the House of Commons? Do we not want people with a bit of chutzpah? A bit of life knocking them down and them finding their feet?

The eagerness of those who regurgitate the phrase “hard-working families” to do their utmost to besmirch those from ordinary backgrounds who seek to campaign to change society for the better would be laughable were it not so cynical and depressing.  More and more those with a genuine self-narrative to tell, for better and for worse, are attacked for their impertinence in not being part of the cult of the careerist that seems to be the template for the “ideal” political campaigner.

Use of social media is not dictated entirely by that media, it is about the individual user too. Sometimes the ease of access to other people is a privilege, and a minority of the time it is not.

I use the block function for many reasons. Sometimes I use it as a mute for users who are simply boring and repetitive and blocking means they are not retweeted in to my timeline.

That might mean I've never actually interacted with them, but have seen their opinions in my timeline and decided life would be simpler without having to view them. I have blocked many people who have been personally abusive to me and blocked people who have tweeted me - a look at their account shows the continual interactions with other people, blocked for similar attitudes to other people.  Trolls feeding the trolls, in some circular conversation of bile and insults.

It used to be the case on Twitter that when you blocked people on a particular account they could no longer use that account to view your tweets. Twitter seems to have done away with that function. With the rise in online abuse it seems a cavalier move to mean that block only serves to stop you seeing tweets about you while allowing the abuser to read and respond to your tweets and then tag you for the world to see.  Whilst I find most of these individuals irritating and pitiful, what of those for whom abuse is debilitating and affecting?

Twitter works best with an open account because you get to interact with a variety of new people and people can respond to and use your very occasional pearls of wisdom. That said, I tend to think: my Twitter, my rules. If you don't like me or how I use my Twitter, frankly, I don't really give a damn.

And if you hide behind an egg or a pseudonym and use that anonymity to attack people, you are a coward and undeserving of a response. Just don't forget, that anonymity is not absolute.

Never forget the tale of poor Doreen.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Over to you, Margaret

Dear Margaret,

I have quite the conundrum. I wonder if you could help me with it.

My Scots born best friend moved to Beijing in 2005. She had previously spent a year studying in Canada, but she came back and I could find no traces of latent Canadianism.

Over the last few years she has learned to speak Mandarin quite competently. She also works for the EU. That could be another nail in her coffin, right?

Whilst she has been in Beijing she has met and fallen in love with a Northern Irish chap. Except, he was born and spent the first five years of his life in Germany as a forces brat. He has no trace of a Germanic accent though, or Northern Irish for that matter. He sounds English.

Anyway, I digress. They have been together for a few years and announced earlier this year they were going to have a baby. He was born safely today.

I am not sure if I should be excited. I need to clarify a few points: Did both my friend and her partner move to China and become foreign, or were they already foreign from living in Canada and Germany? Is it worse or better that China is outwith the EU? I am not sure how Labour feel about the EU, you see.

Will their son be Chinese because he is born in Beijing, or is his nationality determined by his parents, and if that is the case, which nationality is the dominant? Is it his mother's Scots or Canadian or Chinese? Or his dad's Northern Irish, German or Chinese nationality.

This is quite the quandary. You have been known to express an a opinion or two about folk moving "abroad" and becoming foreigners.

Until the point I heard your cogent argument, I was tempted to treat their son as an honorary nephew on account his mother and her family feel as close to me as my own. I was naive to think the bonds that bind us, of blood and/or of love, were more important than borders.

Also, can you explain how your position reconciles this with notions of solidarity?

Can you help me?

Should I even buy them a present?



Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Polling and Celebrities and Reports, Oh My!

I don’t give much credence to political polling; in a similar but lesser way to the credence I give to “celebrities” who endorse political parties.  I understand the need for both; the obsession of the media to hang labels on folk and to have some sense of public opinion at any given point in time. We should not expect either one represent real public opinion. For “celebrity” does not in and of itself confer greater understanding, and polls data is conjured by the gathering of the views of registered, interested individuals. 

Last week the Texas singer Sharleen Spiteri was asked in an interview about independence, and her preference – should she be eligible to vote - was to stay in the union.  Part of her reasoning was based on the fact – in her opinion - that Scotland did not have the oil and gas resources to keep ourselves afloat. Now, Spiteri is perfectly entitled to her position on independence, and we should never despise people the right to free speech and to form their own opinions, but I would hope that by September 2014, we have an electorate who are more aware of the genuine facts and implications of independence than Ms Spiteri is at present. 

Please do not read the above as criticism of Ms Spiteri as much as a pertinent example that even the very blatant fact of Scotland’s relative oil wealth hasn’t become totally embedded in public consciousness. This demonstrates that the Yes campaign have a lot of work to do if this most simple and irrefutable of facts is still to be accepted by the public as the more reliable position. 

However, who said it would be easy to change public consciousness? Current Scottish society is one which has been brought up ill-at-ease with itself; uncomfortable in its place in the UK and even more tentative, without voice, abroad. It is no surprise then that we should always see the worst, the most pessimistic reflection of ourselves in the mirror. The “wha’s like us ...?” mentality is unsubstantiated bravado which is baseless in the reality of Scots and Scotland asserting ourselves for at least the last century. Scratch beneath the surface and we are all just looking for reassurance of our position and place. 

This is one area that the collective parties and organisations of the Yes campaign have to tackle to win; our own scepticism in our abilities. Scotland as a nation constantly demonstrates that she is too scared to try because trying could result in failure. When we do battle our natural reticence, look what we can do. At the second go we voted for devolution, and we haven’t looked back. Only some very insular and UKIP types would suggest anything other than that the Scottish Parliament has been an important step forward.

The Yes campaign should have the messages which can convince the public of our ability to go it alone, and the way that these messages are conveyed will make the difference between a yes and a no vote. Already the appetite for more information and interest in the independence referendum is more palpable than it was six months ago, and the Yes campaign must be proactive in setting out positions and messages which can resonate with ordinary folk. They must also continue the massive ground movement of campaigners who are available to speaker to voters.

As far as I can see, the No campaign have been relatively successful in these early days because they have the might of sections of the media, and UK wide audience and politicians to assist them.  They are also able to use the machinery of the UK institutions to produce materials which they plan to be contrary to the benefits of independence. 

This particular strategy – whilst successful early on – may not be as reliable as early indications and polling data have led the No campaign to believe going forward. We have seen the efficacy of this methodology when the first paper on Scotland’s relationship with the EU failed to pull the punches it was hyped to do and the experts commissioned were, if not supportive, then certainly tolerant of the Scottish Government’s position. Furthermore, the UK Government plan to produce a paper a month about independence and the implications thereof seems to have fallen by the wayside. Now that we have a timetable for the Scottish Government’s release of information – including the White Paper – we have a reliable schedule whereby the Yes campaign and the associated political parties can be more proactive in their approach to how they produce and respond.

The debate until now has been somewhat characterised by the bombastic bluster of the No campaign and the relative fire fighting of the Yes campaign over what information is released to the public via the media. However, the Yes campaign has begun the process of assimilating talented individuals who can work with the information and schedule which the Scottish Government has produced to plan more effectively for the future. I am of the opinion that we will start to see a very different strategy going forward.

The narrative thus far by the No campaign has revealed little original thinking. The most original and creative idea I have seen so far has been to suggest that, yes, Scotland does have plenty of oil, but it does not have sufficient infrastructure to support the oil industry.  Whoever came up with that particular nugget deserves a medal. I understand that the role of the No campaign is to create uncertainty, but I think it is sad if Scots choose to stay in the UK because we are frightened in to submission. 

Yes, it is one purpose of the No campaign to expose what weaknesses and chinks it thinks it can find in the Yes argument, but surely the more important point is to convince people of the relative benefits of the status quo.  It is only the status quo which they can promise. Alistair Darling who heads the Better Together is an MP but has no power to action any further devolution plans, and the constitution of the Westminster Government post 2015 is entirely up in the air. Neither Labour or the Tories, or indeed the Lib Dems, are in the position to make any real or tangible offer of further powers. It is all very well for the Labour Party to create their “United With Labour” campaign, but what can they promise? On the basis of the performances of the Labour party in Holyrood and Westminster, neither branch of the Labour party will be in power any time soon.

This leaves us with the choice of status quo, with a potential referendum on membership of Europe, or full independence with the opportunity to decide on what constitutes that independence. Any attempt to suggest that there are other options are on the table is disingenuous.

Since the relatives highs of the post Scottish Parliament election 2011 polling data on independence, the Yes campaign have seen those figures trough slightly but remain fairly static. Meanwhile, the No campaign has seen their very strong, majority No position eroded in favour of a higher percentage of “Don’t knows” in those certain to vote. So, whilst the relative stability of the Yes vote in the low 30%s must provide some concern, it definitely the No campaign who have more to fear at present.  They have been chucking everything but the kitchen sink at the Yes campaign and yet we see this erosion in their support. In fact, that majority is very much in danger.

When the No campaign are denigrating the abilities of the very people they wish to convince by suggesting we are the only country in the world which cannot go it alone, and are signing up to hitch their wagons to any message, regardless of ideology, which they think will somehow skewer the Yes campaign, and are still in decline, they are really in trouble. Quite regardless of the politicians, the actual “Better Together” campaign seems to me to be staffed by sneering schoolboys hiding in their gang hut who respond to genuine questioning with pettiness, and allow for the sanitisation of their Facebook threads – even when the questions asked of them have genuine merit. The electorate have the right to expect more than that – even if they see activists of other stripes as fair game. 

If a genuine question about data sharing with political party partners is met with ridicule, I shudder to think what else they think below their contempt.

This debate is just beginning with the real public; the voters.  I think as more people become involved in the conversation and as more details are released to them, the trend of the No vote downward will continue, but I think we will see the Yes vote start to increase as some of the undecided voters hear what the facts and messages that they need to hear.

If you believe in polls, and read the Panelbase one yesterday, you could argue that this has already begun.

We shall see. Game on, as someone once said.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Calm down, what is a little third party data pass on between friends?

Imagine, for a moment, this scenario: a canvasser comes to your door and identifies themselves explicitly as a member of the Yes or No campaign on Scottish independence. This gives you pause for thought. You may, or may not, vote regularly. You may not even be registered to vote. What you are is interested in the future of our country.

For many years you may have been sceptical about voting.  You may have voted in elections, you might not have. At the back of your mind lurks the thought, “what difference does it make, politicians are all the same?” I’d pause around to discuss this with you for a while and maybe remonstrate a bit that some politicians – across the political spectrum – really do care, but that isn’t the issue at hand here. 

The vote on Scottish independence transcends party politics. Heck, it transcends politicians. That is a good and necessary thing.

Of course, it is inevitable that it is politicians who shape the narrative of the debate about our constitutional future, but make no mistake; this is our vote and our future. Party policies should go on a hiatus between the independence referendum and the elections for the first Scottish parliament in 2016 whilst we wrangle out a settlement from the UK and perhaps, discuss what we would like to see in a written constitution; shaping the framework for a new country based on the principles and ideals of our country and the people who live here.

Or maybe – heaven forefend – we get a no vote and we have to take a serious look at how we are governed presently, and make changes. For, let’s be emphatic and clear, the status quo does not work, and an absolute majority of Scots – pro-independence or not – want to see a huge transfer of powers from Westminster. 

The most consistent polling – whilst I don’t really put much stock in polling data – show a dissatisfaction with the status quo and a demand for more powers which is not even remotely satisfied by the Calman Commission. The Calman Commission, in my opinion, is barely worth the paper it is written – at length – on. It may be a sop to some political parties, but it doesn’t address the inequities of the status quo or any of the real requirements of the public

So, the public should be at the forefront of any campaign for the future of our country. The public should shape the future that we conclude. The public should be canvassed with no agenda beyond that of discussing our constitutional future. If you turn up on the public’s doorstep and tell them that is what you are doing, then that is what you should do.

If the SNP arrive mob-handed on your doorstep canvassing data for the independence referendum, it is fairly obvious that your details will be stored by the SNP. Similarly if the campaigner is in any other political party arguing any other constitutional future and identifies as such, it is inevitable your details will be stored by them.

However, when a representative of the respective Yes or No campaigns arrives on your doorstep, you are entitled to believe you are entering a discussion which transcends party politics. Perhaps you don’t really like discussing your political ideology, and after all, why should your political views form part of a discussion about your voting intentions or thoughts about the referendum?

Why would the Yes or no campaign collect data which refers to your previous or future party political voting? The Yes and no campaigns have a shelf life. They don’t need this data to progress. They will be extinct, come what may, on the nineteenth of September 2014.

So, why then is Better Together actively asking folk about their voting intentions? Why does it form part of their canvass data and canvass cards? And why are they passing this information on to third parties, namely their political party partners? Are you happy to have your voting intentions passed to the Conservatives, say, when you wouldn’t give that information to an acknowledged Conservative campaigner on your doorstep? Would you disclose this information if you knew where it would end up?

I appreciate there may be small print on the polling cards which discloses where your data might end up, but is this sufficient? If the information is filled in for you by a campaigner, and you never see the polling card, is it disclosed to you by the person on your doorstep? 

Moreover, why does Better Together want this information? And how do they justify collecting it?

A Better Together spokesperson said, 

“We are content that everything that we do in terms of data collection is in accordance with the relevant legislation”.

I am sure that is absolutely the case, but it still doesn’t justify the collection in the first place. And it only counts as within data protection legislation if the caveat is made available to, or disclosed to the person who supplies the data. Surely it is disingenuous to masquerade as one thing whilst collecting data for another; however legally it is framed. Honesty and openness is an entirely different framework.
Something doesn’t stack up.

So, the lesson is always to check the small print. Clearly Better Together is the political equivalent of an online marketer who passes on your details to a third party resulting in unsolicited correspondence. And indeed, Better Together have been known to utilise these third party marketers themselves to legally purchase telephone data for their much derided and unsolicited text message campaign.

We need openness and transparency in this debate. That goes for campaign techniques as well as messaging.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Dr Who is Frances Barber?

Last year I had perhaps the most baffling Twitter interlude of my 4 year presence on that site: an apparently well respected actress, Frances Barber, told me to “F*ck off and die”. Clearly something precipitated this, otherwise why would a celebrated luvvie react with such vitriol?

Frances Barber – in her bio – is, or was, a Labour Party member. She is also pro-union. So, what was I guilty of which provoked her very offensive response? I must have tweeted something pretty abhorrent, right? Here is the exchange, you decide:

“Alan Cumming accepts that if he lives in the US he won’t get to vote, hence he will move home. However, attempt to silence him in the interim disgusting.”

This was retweeted a number of times and must have come to Frances Barber’s attention.  It certainly wasn’t directly through me – I’d never heard of her until I Googled her. She replied,

“He lives in US comes back to lecture great brave heart eh?

I replied,

“He is in Glasgow starring in Macbeth actually. He is entitled to opinion & is moving home. Cute pejorative “brave heart”.

She replied, “moving home ? Hahahaha to LA”.

At this point I was still unsure who she was and wanted to find out if she – who was having a rant about Alan Cumming’s interjection in the independence debate – was entitled to vote, and therefore comment, as this seemed to be her big issue. I asked her,

“Will you be voting in #indyref? If not, why not? And what then gives you the right to express your opinion to me?

She sent back this, “you silly fool. I have every right if you display your idiocy in my time line go home to mummy”

Clearly I touched a nerve. I decided I had had enough of this particular interaction and sent this,

“You don’t follow me, nor I you. Nor would I want to. Insults are the refuge of the pathetic and inarticulate. Goodnight.”

Her response was, “f*ck off & die”. She then went on to tweet that she was being trolled by nasty “cybernats”.

This exchange is interesting – to me at least – for a number of reasons.

My initial tweet was to advocate tolerance of other opinions in the independence debate – even those of people who do not reside in Scotland. I am in favour of the franchise which has been settled upon and I believe that this decision is one for the people who live and work in Scotland, but there will be ramifications for people living elsewhere, and they have a right to freedom of expression.

Frances Barber contacted me. I didn’t initiate an exchange with her. I did, effectively suggest she was pathetic and inarticulate, both opinions I stand by on the basis of her interjection. There is no place in any debate for offensive language, or for sentiments specifically meant to insult whilst providing no illumination to the issue at hand. Frances Barber did not enter in to a debate for the purpose of a meaningful exchange, she wanted to insult Alan Cumming, and then me, and she achieved both.

This exchange with a pro-union Labour supporting “star” did not merit any comment by a journalist, or lurid headlines in a paper about the behaviour of pro-union supporters on the internet. Exchanges like this happen every day. Exchanges like this happen on both sides of the independence divide. Even celebrities and other public figures – like MPs and Lords – can be just as irresponsible as anonymous “keyboard warriors”. It just seems that the more visible or “credible” you are, the more offensive you can be, all without any apparent ramification. Lord Foulkes manages to escape media censure despite some outrageous comments in the House of Lords and online, and the same applies to others.

It is an entirely false narrative to suggest that trolling or insults or even currently unverified “death threats” are particular to any one side of the debate. It is also false to suggest that this type of online behaviour is specific only to this debate on our future. There are many instances of disgusting online behaviour which transcend our constitutional quandary. To give any special title to these people gives them a degree of validity. Just say what they really are, which is bullies.

In the last week I have watched, dismayed, as the real, meaningful debate on the future of our country has been drowned out by screaming accusations in some sections of the media that Susan Calman suffered online abuse for a sketch which performed on the radio.

I will state my opinion here that I am not soft-skinned or in any way humourless – although a certain blogger recently suggested differently – but I actually don’t think that lazy stereotype observational comedy is that funny. My idea of satire is that it is truly observational and current and doesn’t consist of jokes predicated on observations which have been done to death. That said, I don’t despise people the right to find this funny, or to make these types of jokes. They just don’t float my boat.

Anyone who contacted Susan Calman to attempt to silence her, or to abuse her or just to heckle her is to be condemned. Too many of these incidences occur. There are too many people on the internet who feel protected by the anonymity of their computers. Usual social etiquette goes out the window as they use unparalleled access to “celebrity”, sports persons and politicians to send barrages of hurtful abuse.

I will admit there are people on the yes side of the debate who damage the reputation of the whole campaign. They would refute that because they think that their opinion is extremely important and that online we are all amateur investigative journalists in pursuit of stories and exposing lies. There are people on the same side of the constitutional debate as me that I wouldn’t want to be in the same room as, never mind share a meal. I condemn utterly the behaviours of these people and I block as many people on the yes side as I do on the no side.

I have a block policy which isn’t particularly formulaic. I block people who are offensive to me, or to others, or people who just generally irritate me. The first two are pretty self-explanatory, but the third I block simply so I don’t have to read their opinions retweeted in to my timeline. My Twitter account is my account. I am responsible to no one for what I tweet. I am not employed by any organisation with an interest in the referendum debate. I am responsible only to my own notion of what is correct behaviour. If I wouldn’t say something to someone in person, I have no right hiding behind a keyboard to do so instead. In that same respect, it is up to me who I am happy to read in my timeline, and who I am not. And I don’t particularly care if that irritates anyone.

Last night I watched with incredulity as lawyer, blogger, Labour member and political pundit Ian Smart completely torpedoed his reputation with some of the most ill-advised and inflammatory tweets I have seen for some time. He has since continued to defend and try to reframe his initial point, but he would be better to just put his hands up and apologise and then go for a lie down. I know Ian Smart is not a racist, and I like Ian, but his tweets crossed the line from challenging to offensive.

More bizarrely, Lord McConnell not only leaped to the defence of Mr Smart, but went on the offensive; suggesting swathes of the yes campaign are anti-English. I condemn him utterly as well. He later admitted he hadn’t even read the initial tweet, but is still absolutely and resolutely condemning “cybernats” for “pack mentality” and feigning outrage. Given he hadn't read the tweet but jumped in to defend, am I only one who thinks it is rather hypocritical to accuse anyone else of pack mentality?

I was offended because I chose to follow both because I expected a decent level of debate from them. I also expect Lord McConnell to act with responsibility given that he is an employee of the state. Futher more, I reject this pejorative attempt by some elements of the press and pro-union politicians to caption all online yes supporters with this moniker. It is cheap.

Making race a central tenet of the independence debate online is disgusting. That isn’t manufactured outrage, it is a fact. Jack McConnell should be better than this, but is emerging from this particular stramash with his credibility very much undermined. Clearly we can’t rely on elected members of unelected peers to lead with any kind of example.

The media have not seen fit to draw any attention to this whatsoever. It does make you wonder how far a politician or online pro-union campaigner would have to go before their online commentary becomes news worthy. Had the same been tweeted by an SNP member, they’d have been promoted to “top Nat” tout de suite, a hazy picture of them at a function where the FM can be seen in the distance produced, and lurid headlines about racist “cybernats” in our media. Don’t believe me? Fine, but I have seen too many examples of this type of lazy, armchair journalism over the last few years.

Why am I pointing fingers and making examples of people you may well ask. It is merely to construct and evidence that we all have a problem with what happens online. We need to be able to distance individual’s behaviours from their membership of any campaigns organisations. Individuals regulate their own behaviours, not the organisations they purport to represent. We have to be mature about how we react to these situations too.

I have chosen to leave myself open to criticism by using social media openly, and in the most part, it is a great endeavour.  Used correctly, social media is a wonderful tool for interaction, spreading messages, campaigning and for instant updates on breaking news items. However, when people don’t respect other people’s boundaries, or the limits of decency and responsibility, they threaten the endeavour for us all.

We deserve to have an open, engaging and honest debate on our future. This is the most important political decision we will make in our lives. It would be nice to see it getting the courtesy and decency it deserves and the people demand.

And just in case you are wondering, I never did get an apology from Frances Barber, but I certainly do know who she is now.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Lost: The Plot

It is a false dichotomy that the public are sick of squabbles between the Yes and No campaigns on financing. I doubt they are even aware of them. Despite Euan McColm arguing in the Scotland on Sunday that this is the case, I’d moot that the funding row to which he refers has not even pricked the wider consciousness of the voting populace. It is possible that the legendary petty squabbles at FMQs might have made some impact, but that is arguably attributable to larger and longstanding media coverage. Pointless discussions at Holyrood and grandstanding are the norm.  The public may very well be tired of that type of meaningless one-upmanship.

It is a false narrative that what happens largely online translates to messaging which hits the doorsteps.  It doesn’t. Even articles in newspapers fail to engage with a public which is largely disengaged at this moment in time. That there is increasing awareness of the independence debate is irrefutable, but people have lives, the referendum is 15 months away, and what is open warfare online hasn’t inspired the same level of interest IRL (in real life), yet.

Of course, those of us who operate online can take some succour that someone is listening. It just isn’t the people we might wish to engage with. It can be an amusing diversion to enter in to protracted discourse with advocates of other opinions online, but let’s be honest, it may be enjoyable, but it certainly isn’t productive. People engaging on Twitter and other social media sites have – in the vast majority - already made up their mind. Those who haven’t may occasionally enter the fray, but probably think twice as their innocent questioning is met with diatribes so polarised as to make running for the hills in bare feet through stingy nettles a preferable option to trying to get cogent answers.

Also, the media are listening. Sometimes not just listening, but proactively ploughing through thousands of tweets and thousands of timelines to find tweets from users which they can use to frame their narrative of keyboard warriors and link them negatively to one side of the debate or other. How extraordinary to see ordinary folk suddenly elevated to “top campaigner”, or “close to x person” by dint of having been in a photograph with them and a having produced a tweet which they have ill-advisedly sent. 

It is lazy, sensationalist journalism which can damage reputations but provides very little in the way of journalistic merit. However, why go in search of a story when you can sit in your office and trawl through some tweets? Not only is it lazy, it has to fit a certain narrative. By no means am I suggesting that all journalists subscribe to this, but some are more than willing to sit back and let the story come to them than in doing any real investigative work. However, their willingness to pursue these instances should be a cautionary tale to those folk who tweet and send without much thought to what they put out. Nothing happens in isolation and the actions of the minority can have a negative wash back on causes they support and majorities of people who act with due decorum.

And so what of the funding row this week? The folk at National Collective did a bit of proper investigative journalism, digging about the no campaign’s chief donor, Ian Taylor, and released this information in a – possibly - legally clumsy manner which prompted the now infamous wave of legal letters from the law firm which previously represented Craig Whyte. Let that not fool you though, their scatter gun and ineffective approach to “protecting” the reputation of Craig Whyte should not make people complacent; these people are serious media lawyers.

Whilst I don’t think much will transpire from these letters – in National Collective’s case anyway – it is worth noting that rich business folk when provoked by online blogs can afford to pay to bring down a hail storm of legalities and threats of further action. When you have a readership of tens of thousands, you cannot escape the same level of responsibility as the traditional print or broadcast media you rival. If we hadn’t already learned that during the Lord McAlpine saga, we should certainly not forget it now. It is no longer safe to throw a metaphorical bomb on the internet and then retreat and watch it explode. The independence referendum has shined a very bright spotlight on online behaviours.

That there are serious questions to answer about the donation of Ian Taylor is a fact that the no campaign cannot ignore. It is not a sufficient response to stick their fingers in their ears, hum and hope it all goes away.  Nor is it acceptable to hide behind the legal action which Ian Taylor’s Vitol are taking. His legal action is predicated on what he or Vitol see as damage to his/their reputation. The no campaign’s reputation, while linked, is different.

The Herald clearly had their article legalled before they went to print. Despite this, Vitol’s lawyers sent them the same letter as the National Collective and others. However, the Herald had the confidence to ignore and press on with the story. And what a story it is. The information about Vitol - which is freely available in the public spectrum - does not make particularly pretty reading. Most of it is not casually framed with “allegations of...” because it is based on irrefutable fact and hard evidence.  Vitol have admitted they did pay Arkan $1m, and Vitol have been involved and found culpable of questionable business practises in the US - including admitting paying kick backs to Saddam's Iraq -and fined. I’ll say no more for fear of sanctioning.

This is the incontrovertible and inconvenient truth for the no campaign. Holding on to the money is unconscionable.  They don’t need to wait for the Vitol’s lawyers to decide whether to press ahead with any action to tell them that the acceptance of the money is wrong.

Henry McLeish knows it, and so did Labour’s John Mann MP when he told questioned the Tories on accepting donations from Mr Taylor. It is simply not a responsible reply to hide behind legality.
And so, what a week it has been in the online referendum debate. Hand rubbing glee from the yes side of the debate as the huge no side’s own goal on funding has now descended in to farce and finger pointing and, oh, how weary it is all becoming.

I am partisan. Of course I am, and so I see things through a prism which is skewed. However, I hope that where due criticism is required; I do not shy away from it. I have been known to criticise the SNP where I feel it is due.I am a passionate supporter of both the SNP and independence but I am certainly not an automaton.

I freely admit that there are elements of online Yes support which are undesirable, but it isn’t my responsibility to police people’s conduct online.  Many of these are not directly affiliated to the Yes campaign, or the SNP, or any of the other pro-independence parties or organisations. I don’t follow a number of people who are on “my side” because of their online conduct, and have blocked or unfollowed some for misogyny or sanctimonious ranting, or for trying to regulate my behaviour if I am seen as too nice to someone that they have set in their sights.

That said, I have also done the same with people who express opinions on the opposite side of the debate. Yesterday I blocked someone on one of the other twitter feeds I help to curate because his language and behaviour had become offensive and abusive. There is simply no point entering in to “he said, she said”, tit for tat nonsense. I had hoped that the official Yes and No campaigns would have maintained certain professionalism and not sunk to the depths of some of the online “debate” but that was a vain hope.

I hope that when I express dismay about Better Together’s handling of the Taylor case and their subsequent attack on the Yes Campaign and the SNP it isn’t considered a rearguard action, but a genuine response to what I perceive to be behaviour which is fundamentally “not cricket”.

The press release/blog which Better Together circulated at the beginning of last week was nothing short of farcical. It was their rearguard action moment to help salvage their reputation over the Taylor debacle by throwing great big stinking dollops of mud at the SNP and Yes Campaign and hoping it would stick. This can be the only sympathetic explanation of their quite extraordinary actions.

It was a plan worthy of Baldrickian cunning. The old, "I'll say you are smearing me whilst I smear you". Smear, smear, smear. Oh dear. Baldrick may have been known for the quantity of his cunning plans, but not their efficacy. No! Take note.

Undaunted by fact or lessons learned by Baldrick, Blair McDougall continued this charming little diatribe in the studios at Scotland Tonight unperturbed by his complete lack of evidence. "Evidence? What Evidence? I have stonking big piles of stinking mud to throw here". Ok, he didn't really say that, but you take my meaning.  What he actually said was, "[attacks on their office etc were]coordinated & led from the top of the SNP & Yes campaign"

How pleased was I that of the two Blairs on my TV that night, Jenkins was on the Yes side? Despite what were deeply unpleasant and unfounded accusations about Yes Scotland - which Blair Jenkins heads up - he was calm, assured, stuck to his lines and did not attempt to dignify Blair McDougall’s accusations with a response in kind.

The juxtaposition of the photograph of the vandalised Scotsman building with the narrative of Better Together’s press release clearly suggests that a Yes/SNP leadership orchestrated campaign was responsible for this, along with some petty incidences of leaflet dumps. Whilst some may suggest that this was a leap too far and that the release didn’t quite say that, follow up tweets from Blair McDougall himself and his performance on Scotland Tonight, and tweets from Rob Murray, their grassroots organiser, clear up any ambiguity that that is what they are saying, not simply inferring.

When challenged to provide any evidence whatsoever of this “orchestrated” campaign, there is radio silence, a sudden cease of response. If it wasn’t so laughable that anyone involved in the organisation of either the SNP or Yes Scotland be involved in what they allege, I might display some concern.  As it is, I have decided to take the amused and disappointed route rather than be justly angered at the lowering of the tone without evidence or justification.

Really, what have we learned this week? Not much beyond the debate has the capacity to get mightily unpleasant, that the No campaign comes out with claws on show when cornered, and that Blair Jenkins is a pleasant communicator. 

For National Collective and other online media perhaps the lesson is that free speech is desirable, but that a degree of caution is required.  When you are skewering people with deep pockets, there are always people watching. Make sure you wear your belt and braces.

Beyond that, I can only conclude that far from having lost the plot, the online debate is in danger of never locating it in the first place.

Post Script

Well, seems I was canny not to "misattribute" any quotes to John Mann MP specifically referring to the Better Together funding debacle. Seems that the SNP were yesterday caught up in a tiff caused by the incorrect attributing of a quote in the Sunday Times Scotland which was then picked up by Monday's edition of The Herald and used thereafter - bona fide as sourced from two respectable newspapers - by the SNP.

John Mann MP was, understandably, unhappy and sought to have the record set straight. This was immediately corrected by the two newspapers and followed suit by the SNP. John Mann is not satisfied, however. It seems "he" believes that this is part of some, "SNP dirty tricks campaign".

I had a wee look at his Twitter timeline as some of his tweets were being gleefully retweeted in to my timeline by triumphalist No Campaigners who believe that this sorry wee mix-up fatally wounds the SNP. Quite apart from this being nonsensical, it doesn't alter the fundamental issue; that of Mr Taylor's donation. The "quick, look, there is a bird" approach to obfuscation ain't gonna cut the mustard.

 Before he tweeted the above, John Mann MP had earlier tweeted, "Glasgow Herald has just had to apologise for making up quotes in my name. Shocking unethical journalism in todays [sic] paper". He also said, "Scottish Sunday Times will have to apologise for their shocking and lazy journalism this Sunday.".

So, what happened between him tweeting those and directing blame to the newspapers who had used the quotes on Sunday and Monday respectively and his then turning his attention on the SNP? I would not dare to suggest that his new narrative now ties up nicely in a bow with that of the no campaign and was convenient.That this little known MP suddenly has the inside track on "SNP tricks" makes him almost omniscient in UK politics.

What exactly is he suggesting; that the Sunday Times and Herald are in cahoots with the SNP? This is plainly ridiculous. This tawdry little episode was the result of human error, not nefarious intent. John Mann MP - and Ian Smart - can stamp their feet and try to make political capital from it, but the fact is that apologies have been made and corrections issued.  Time to draw a line under it.

And just as a final thought, John Mann has not taken the Telegraph to task for their report (from 2012) where he questions Tory acceptance of Mr Taylor's donations and from where the "immoral" and "dirty money" quotes originated.It can only be ascertained from this that he did indeed make those comments.

The quote which was incorrectly attributed to John Mann MP said the same about the No campaign accepting My Taylor's money.  Whilst Mr Mann definitely, definitely did not say this, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to surmise that if he believes that the Tories shouldn't accept Mr Taylor's "dirty money", it would follow suit he doesn't believe the No Campaign should either. Any other position would be, I hesitate to add, rank hypocrisy.

I am sure John Mann MP will move very quickly to clarify his opinion on this now that he is engaged in Scottish politics and likes the record to be straight.