A LABOUR parliamentary candidate resigned yesterday after tweeting an image of the Hitler Youth in response to the publication of a photograph of children at a pro-independence demonstration outside BBC Scotland’s headquarters.
Kathy Wiles, who had been selected to stand in the Angus constituency in next year’s general election, withdrew her candidacy and apologised “unequivocally” after the Nazi image provoked a social-media backlash.
In a tweet on an account she has now deleted, Ms Wiles said she had been trying to make a point about “the dangers of using young children in political campaigns”.
She declared she was not making any inference about the children in the protest photograph.
She added: “I tweeted a picture which caused offence, for which I apologise unequivocally.”
The image she put up was of children standing around a flag with an eagle and Nazi swastika on it.
Ms Wiles posted it during an online debate about last Sunday’s protest outside BBC Scotland’s Pacific Quay headquarters in Glasgow, where photographs were taken of children standing beneath a banner for the pro-independence blog Wings Over Scotland.
Another Twitter user likened the protest picture to the Hitler Youth. Ms Wiles responded with the swastika picture and message: “Do you mean this?”
After Ms Wiles’s picture appeared, the father of two of the children in the protest photo tweeted: “How dare you compare my children to the Hitler Youth, despicable.”
Last night, the Scottish Labour Party confirmed that it had accepted Ms Wiles’s resignation as the party’s prospective parliamentary candidate in Angus.
A spokesman said: “We believe Kathy Wiles has taken the right decision to withdraw and we will move swiftly to get another candidate in place.
“The debate about Scotland’s future should be held in a respectful and positive way and we will take robust and immediate action if any of our members fall below these standards.”
The party also warned that “robust and immediate” action will be taken against any online abuse, as tensions mount in the final stretch of the referendum debate.
In recent weeks, author JK Rowling, lottery millionaires and SNP donors Colin and Chris Weir and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland have been among those who have suffered online attacks in bitter exchanges over Scotland’s constitutional future.
The tone of the referendum debate has come under intense scrutiny in the wake of abusive messages sent to Harry Potter creator Rowling after she donated £1 million to the pro-Union campaign. Earlier, carers’ rights campaigner Clare Lally also came under fire after appearing at a rally organised by Better Together.
Supporters of independence have also been on the receiving end of cyber abuse. EuroMillions winners Mr and Mrs Weir – who have donated about £5.5 million to the SNP and Yes Scotland – made a public appeal for restraint after revealing the extent of the abuse they had received.
Dr Michael Higgins, a senior lecturer in humanities at Strathclyde University, said social media has provided a potential bear-trap for politicians.
He said: “It gives those in power an unmediated voice, the opportunity to sound off at a moment’s notice, and that’s coming back to bite more and more of them. A politician can go on to a platform and say something without clearing it with the party press office. Political parties will try to control it, but how can you?
“We don’t know what social media will look like in six years’ time, but the one thing we can be certain of is it will be even easier to use than it is now and we will have even more access to it. So political parties are less able to control what their individual politicians and candidates say on social media.”
He described Ms Wiles’s actions as a “particularly ill-advised and a bad case” and said the extreme abuse suffered by the likes of Rowling was “unforgivable”.
But the academic suggested that, in general terms, a “more forgiving” approach is needed to what is said on social media. He added: “I would like to think that some of things that have been said in this referendum campaign on both sides, we will forgive after the campaign and, whatever the result, we will all move on.
“I think we’re going to have to adopt a more forgiving attitude towards social media.”
The often vitriolic nature of the independence debate has prompted Scotland’s most senior law officer, Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland QC, to warn recently there was “a line which should not be crossed” in public debate and that making abusive or threatening remarks online could result in prosecution.
Graeme Dey, the SNP MSP for Angus South, said: “It is welcome that Kathy Wiles apologised for her comment, which was extremely offensive and abusive about these children.
Her decision to resign as a Labour candidate was entirely a matter for Ms Wiles, in light of the offence she caused.
“Her comment trying to justify the tweet made no sense at all – the UK government’s taxpayer-funded pamphlet trying to get people to vote No features five children on its front cover.”
He added: “It just isn’t on. Labour are very quick to point out faults on the other side, and we are absolutely clear that all online abuse is totally unacceptable. In light of this sorry episode, it is time for Johann Lamont to show that Labour agree.”
A spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives said: “Our view from the outset of this campaign has been that it should be conducted in a courteous and considered manner on all sides.
“The quality and tone of the debate has to be as high as possible.”