Letter to editor was a legitimate means of response to criticism, and it will have pride of place in my home says Euan McColm
The more he picked apart my work, the greater my enjoyment. By the time he was denouncing me as an “ultra unionist”, I was positively tingling with pleasure.
At the weekend, former First Minister Alex Salmond chose to pay me the great honour of singling me out for stinging criticism over a piece I wrote recently. For the presentation of this badge of honour, I will be eternally grateful. I now join the Governor of the Bank of England, various Treasury officials, and Mr Salmond’s biographer, David Torrance, on a growing list of those whose views are beyond the pale.
The Sunday before last, I used my column in Scotland on Sunday to suggest that the issue of independence had made Mr Salmond an uncommonly divisive character and that it would similarly curse Nicola Sturgeon.
The ex-leader of the SNP was not having this and promptly fired off a letter to the editor in which he pointed out that he had enjoyed sensational approval ratings right up until he stepped down following defeat in the 2014 independence referendum.
One of my more frequent criticisms of – or petty digs at, if that’s your bag – Mr Salmond has been that he is rather brittle and thin-skinned when it comes to those who dare doubt his brilliance. His letter – published on Sunday – did nothing to disabuse me of that notion.
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It is certainly true, of course, that Mr Salmond did enjoy the enthusiastic approval of a substantial number of Scots during his time as First Minister but I’m not sure how this fact negates the idea that he was – and remains – a divisive figure.
Ask someone their opinion about Alex Salmond and they will almost certainly have a strong one, either for or against. This is at least one thing Mr Salmond has in common with goats’ cheese.
Because the rules of modern public discourse insist upon the taking of grievous offence at the slightest disagreement, Mr Salmond’s letter to the editor attracted some attention, online, where a number of people suggested that by writing it, he was attempting to shut me up.
I can understand where this reaction comes from. There has recently been some controversy over SNP MPs appearing to exert pressure on journalists whose coverage they dislike.
But those taking offence on my behalf missed the point. Mr Salmond was not trying to silence me, he was trying to best me. And that, in the contact sport of politics, is entirely legitimate.
Newspaper columnists enjoy certain privileges without much in the way of responsibility. We have a platform few are afforded, we get to say some pretty rum things about people (always in the name of frank analysis, of course), and we have the audacity to think that our opinions have some intrinsic value.
When one really thinks about it, there are many things to dislike about newspaper columnists. It’s hardly surprising that Mr Salmond should disdain me so. If I wasn’t trapped in the purgatory of actually being me, I’d probably agree with him.
Back in the days when I scratched a living covering the political news beat, Mr Salmond would make regular calls to my editor, trying to persuade him against running this story and instead running that one.
These calls were irritating, of course, but Mr Salmond was perfectly entitled to make them. And he’s perfectly entitled to slap me about in print, today, too.
I am in possession of just enough self-awareness to know that the columnists’ sense of entitlement – the bold assertion that what we think matters – will always get up someone’s nose.
I can understand why – under the cover of anonymity that the internet can provide – some people single out columnists for abuse. I’d far rather everyone who disagreed with me was able to do so without such inventive language as I sometime see but, nonetheless, if you’re in the game of making provocative statements and you’re any good at it, you will provoke.
I am great fan of pathos and there is, I think, a great dollop of it in the idea of a former First Minister writing to a newspaper to set the record straight about his popularity. It’s the sort of thing one can imagine a character in a sitcom played by Richard Briers might do. This only adds to the joy its writing has brought me.
I’m pleased that Scotland on Sunday published Mr Salmond’s withering analysis of my work. There is, especially on the nationalist side of the constitutional argument, the fairly solid belief that the “mainstream media” is – as a bloc – not only opposed to independence but that it actively conspires to undermine the case for it.
Mr Salmond has been one of the most vocal critics of what he perceives to be media bias. He can scarcely level that accusation in this instance.
An intemperate general election campaign is soon to be followed by an intemperate campaign leading up to a second independence referendum. During this prolonged period of campaigning hell, politicians will be sharply called out by those who disagree with them and there’s no reason why loudmouthed newspaper columnists shouldn’t be similarly treated.
If I was standing on soapbox in the park, I’d have to accept the right of others to heckle.
Fortunately, I get to do my sounding off while sitting indoors and Alex Salmond’s heckle came in the form of a letter, which is soon to be framed and given pride of place on the wall in the loo.