Brian Wilson: Campbell Gunn part of SNP machine

Campbell Gunn. Picture: Alan Murray
Campbell Gunn. Picture: Alan Murray
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I have known Campbell Gunn for many years and, as a journalist, he was always perfectly fair in his dealings. The change of environment to the inner sanctums of nationalism does not seem to have been beneficial.

His effort to discredit Clare Lally in the eyes of an individual journalist was stupid and clumsy. But at least he did it above his own name and job title – Special Adviser to the Scottish Government and Political Spokesman for the First Minister. A lot worse crimes are committed under the cloak of anonymity.

The writ of the Civil Service rule-book has long since ceased to run in St Andrew’s House while Holyrood is governed by the order of brass neck. To those who employ him, Mr Gunn’s only offence was to get caught and I am sure the same mistake, of doing the dirty work by e-mail, will not be made again.

So the question of whether Campbell Gunn stays or goes does not greatly exercise me. He would probably be replaced by someone nastier and less musical. The focus should not be on an individual action so much as the culture and mentality it represents.

Mr Gunn is a cog in that ever-active wheel of threats and bullying which now pervades Scottish life. If the referendum campaign has taught us anything, it is just how small a country Scotland is and how relatively easy it has been to create a climate in which so many people feel it safer to “say nothing”.

Let’s take the relationship between the official independence campaign and the Wings over Scotland website which acts as a vehicle for the worst elements among the Cybernats. Incidentally, if Alex Salmond’s claim that they are only a “few mindless idiots” was true, they must all be on 24-hour shifts with 100 aliases apiece.

Around 10 o’clock on Tuesday, that website ran the original “revelations” about Ms Lally in order to discredit her credentials as the ordinary mother of a disabled child who did not want to see the United Kingdom broken up. In the paranoid world of nationalism, it was not enough to let her have her say, disagree and leave it at that. Half an hour later, Campbell Gunn sent his e-mail echoing the website misinformation.

It seems reasonable to conclude that Mr Gunn did not start the story but, once aware of it, was somewhat over-eager in disseminating it without checking a word of fact – a hazardous approach given the source and its pedigree.

The guy who has made a business out of Cybernattery through Wings over Scotland, Stuart Campbell, operates from Bath which is what any unsuspecting visitor needs after wading through the comments which his outpourings attract. As a shock-jock blogger, Mr Campbell has an appalling record on every subject from the Hillsborough disaster to 9/11 which he “laughed all the way through”.

This is a chap whom any respectable political organisation might steer clear of, one might think? Even Blair Jenkins, head honcho of Yes Scotland and former BBC Scotland news editor, seemed to have cottoned onto that last September over some particularly noxious outpourings. He was quoted as saying: “We don’t have any direct contact with him. He is not part of Yes Scotland”.

In retrospect, that appears as a more carefully qualified disclaimer than it seemed. There is certainly a high degree of cross-fertilisation between the site’s wares and leading figures in the nationalist movement. And, of course, every time they share its postings, they also multiply the audience for the truly awful stuff – as in the case of Clare Lally – which is appended to them.

If Salmond wants to distance himself from the worst excesses of the Cybernats, this is one clear-cut action he could take. Tell his MPs, MSPs and other Nationalist apparatchiks not to distribute the content of websites which are most frequently and offensively used by the people he supposedly disapproves of.

Fine words about a “few mindless idiots” is sheer humbug, if the people sitting behind you are busily spreading their muck as fast as they can through their own online activities. For the avoidance of doubt, I would say exactly the same thing about the other side of the debate if comparable repositories of bile can be identified.

In one important respect, the Clare Lally episode set a precedent which should be followed. I have always argued that when a politician or spin-doctor offers a briefing to a journalist which is aimed to discredit someone else, there is only one story worthy of the name. It is not about who is briefed against – but who is doing the briefing.

If that principle was applied more widely in the months ahead, then we could have a healthier debate. I am bemused by the number of business people, academics, editors and others with some dependency on Scottish Government largesse, who confide in hushed tones that they will not be putting their heads above the parapet because they have been “warned” it would not be in their best interests. Sometimes, they whisper, this came via a telephone call from the First Minister or some other luminary of the New Scotland.

If even a few more people who receive such communications found the courage to say so, the practice would soon stop – or at least carry a higher degree of risk on the part of the practitioner, in the same way as Campbell Gunn has discovered this week.

However vile and misguided their activities, the Cybernats are not the biggest problem. It is those using the power of their positions and control of public purse-strings to stifle the free expression of opinion who are setting a tone which others then feel emboldened to follow.

When someone of John Byrne’s standing says that artists in Scotland are “terrified” of speaking out in the independence debate for fear of losing Scottish Government and quango funding, then we should recognise that something truly unpleasant, beyond politics, is in the process of being created.

Scotland is in danger of becoming a society in which people are afraid to speak out unless their opinions conform to an orthodoxy to which they are prepared to consent. That is a dangerous place for any society to find itself and, in our own case, an entirely alien and unnecessary one which must not be allowed to become entrenched.