Aides caught airbrushing MPs' and MSPs' biographies on Wikipedia
POLITICAL parties in Scotland are routinely altering the biographical details of their MPs and MSPs on Wikipedia to remove any entries that may damage their reputations, a new survey has revealed.
Among items removed or changed were references to last year's expenses scandal, involvement in bitter party spats, and even accusations that they failed to pull their weight in parliament.
Those found to be having their reputations airbrushed included former First Minister Lord McConnell, former leader of the Labour party in Scotland Wendy Alexander and Michael Moore, the new Liberal Democrat Secretary of State for Scotland.
The reworking of history has prompted several stand-offs with the website's managers, who have accused some party workers of endangering its prized neutrality.
But the parties insist they have had to prune entries in the face of "smears" and untruths that slip onto the site.
Wikipedia is now regularly used as a source of reference by millions of people, who source its information openly. The online encyclopedia allows anyone to edit entries, a process that has left it prone to claims that it can easily be manipulated.
However, to provide safeguards, detailed logs of changes are traceable and users can be tracked by their user name. Even anonymous changes leave a public record of their internet provider address.
The survey of Scottish politicians' sites shows that many of the edits to their sites have come from their own offices and have been aimed at toning down some of the more controversial parts of their lives.
In one case, a researcher for Edinburgh MP Mark Lazarowicz deleted references to his expenses claims no fewer than eight times last year in a so-called "edit war".
The entries concerned references to how he had offered to pay back half of the 5,000 he had claimed in legal fees related to the extension of his London flat.
A Wikipedia user called "Pickinga", thought to be his researcher Andrew Picking, repeatedly attempted to take the entire section out, prompting a stern rebuke from the site.
Another Labour researcher received warnings for a series of edits on leading figures' pages. One involved former Scottish leader Wendy Alexander's page, where a reference to how she had claimed to have former Prime Minister Gordon Brown's support for a referendum on independence was removed. Along with other edits, the researcher was warned of a "screed of breaches of official Wikipedia policy" on neutrality.
Several other edits, while not traceable to a political party, are shown to have emanated from computers hooked up to the Scottish Parliamentary estate. They include the editing of former Deputy First Minister Nicol Stephen's web page, where claims made about his work rate were removed.
A Holyrood computer was also accessed to trim the site of new coalition government Scottish Secretary Michael Moore, which had referred to his expenses claim for a 200 DVD player. The SNP entry was also expunged of a story which made allegations about the special access given to party donor and Stagecoach tycoon Brian Souter.
One of the most active editors was Susan Dalgety, the head of Jack McConnell's office at the parliament who, the records show, removed numerous controversies involving the Labour peer, including his involvement in the so-called "Lobbygate" affair - lobbyists paying for access to government ministers - before he became First Minister.
None of the changes has attracted any complaint from the Wikipedia site.
Dalgety defended her alterations to the Labour peer's site. "Many people, particularly outside the UK, use Wikipedia as a primary source of information," she said. "So if an entry is deliberately negative - as Mr McConnell's was - it gives readers an inaccurate and misleading picture. I can only assume it was someone with a political axe to grind who wrote the original entry, but unlike me they did not wish to identify themselves.
"I believe this kind of cynical, anonymous spin should be challenged, which is why I edited the entry to accurately reflect Mr McConnell's achievements as Scotland's longest serving First Minister.
"And it is this cynical use of Wikipedia by anonymous political activists that distorts political debate and turns people off from engaging in the political process."
SNP MSP and blogger Anne McLauglin said allegations about parties should not appear on the site. "People clicking on the SNP page should, as they would in a paper encyclopaedia, receive factual information about the Scottish National Party, its position and its views, just as they would expect to about any other organisation or individual."
"The SNP allows contributions to its Wikipedia page and I trust that online community of Wiki users to ensure it is accurate or to let Wikipedia know when or if it is edited in a way that goes against Wikipedia's policies."
A Liberal Democrat spokeswoman said: "Online content is checked whenever possible to make sure that sites have not been maliciously hacked or distorted unfairly."
A Scottish Labour spokesman said its opponents were now using Wikipedia to make unfounded smears.
He said: "Wikipedia is used as a primary source of information by a number of people and elected representatives of all parties may seek to ensure entries contain up-to-date and accurate information." n email@example.com
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