Sarah Smith abuse: Nicola Sturgeon needs to act over creeping evil of hatred, bile and misogyny in public discourse – Christine Jardine MP

As a journalist, I frequently had to challenge the assertions of our politicians in Scotland, including those I agreed with.

There is a growing clamour for Nicola Sturgeon to act to bring her foot-soldiers into line (Picture: Fraser Bremner/pool/Getty Images)
There is a growing clamour for Nicola Sturgeon to act to bring her foot-soldiers into line (Picture: Fraser Bremner/pool/Getty Images)

It was what I was paid for. It is what the public deserves. And it is often the only way to ensure that governments justify the assertions that they have made.

Now as a politician, I am on the receiving end of often challenging, sometimes difficult but always completely justified questions from journalists.

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And while it might be uncomfortable at times it is, I believe, a fundamental part of our democracy.

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Freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of the press and of society’s Fourth Estate are vital in a healthy modern democracy.

I never used to worry that I would be bullied, harassed or silenced in any way. That just didn't happen.

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But it does now and if I were a young journalist starting out I might think twice about whether I wanted to face the sort of abuse that former BBC Scotland political editor Sarah Smith revealed this week that she had suffered.

Misogynistic bile hurled at her, both online and in person, because she dared to be impartial.

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Politics in Scotland has changed since that night in 2011 when the Scottish Nationalists won a majority at Holyrood and independence began to dominate debate.

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Hounding of BBC's Sarah Smith until she was glad to leave Scotland is a warning ...
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Bitterness and division reached a peak in the 2014 referendum and has barely abated since.

In the past decade, it has somehow become the accepted norm to some sections of the community that if you are not aligned to the separatist cause you are an ‘enemy’ and should be treated as such.

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That is not to say that only the nationalists are guilty of it. Sadly, I know of colleagues in the SNP who have also suffered unwarranted and unacceptable attacks, but it is the nature of identity politics, of nationalism of all sorts, which is at the root of the problem. It defines and separates us. Creates ‘others’.

I have seen friends being victimised by it, perhaps most painfully the hounding of Charles Kennedy by nationalists in the election campaign shortly before his death.

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I have witnessed the Prime Minister being subjected to an inane verbal tirade in the members tea bar of the Commons, and I have been subjected to it myself.

I understand just how much courage it took for Sarah Smith to reveal what she had endured, knowing, as we all did, that it would be followed by another torrent of online abuse.

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One SNP MSP missed the irony and initially dismissed her experience. He may have apologised, but that needs to be just the first step in undoing the damage that has been done, and the potential consequences for our democracy, from this creeping evil.

We must not under-estimate the scale of the issue or somehow dismiss the abuse and misogyny experienced by a high-profile journalist as an isolated incident.

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She is not the first journalist to put on record what they have suffered.

In a recent discussion with an employer battling to recover from the impact of the pandemic, they shared the reticence they feel to comment on Scottish government support knowing anything critical is likely to be followed by an angry missive or phone call.

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When I put something up on social media, a post about a visit to somewhere in my constituency or an advice surgery, that cannot be construed as controversial or political, I still wait with dread to see the comments.

I scan them as quickly as I can to catch those with reasonable questions or comments and hope I don’t get stuck on something that could, without hyperbole, ruin my day or my week.

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Or more importantly that of my staff, who see it all, too. Abuse has, sadly, just become part of the job.

We had an early warning of what was to come when, during my successful campaign of 2017, I was wrongly accused by a nationalist activist on social media of campaigning during the halt called in the wake of the Manchester bombing.

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Even the explanation that I had actually been at the funeral of my husband who had died a few days earlier did not bring a respite from the abuse.

Abuse that began despite my husband’s death having been reported in the media of which he was a well-known member, and sympathy having been expressed to me by other candidates, including the SNP.

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At times like that, it would be easy to claim that there is some vast abusive online machine with a mind and direction of its own, operating independently perhaps of the rest of the party.

But have we all, including the SNP, not just spent weeks pointing out to the Conservatives that the leader sets the tone and all else stems from there?

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I have a great deal of respect for Nicola Sturgeon as a politician but there is a growing clamour for her to act to bring both her foot-soldiers and her elected representatives into line.

She has called out sexism in others in the past.

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MSP James Dornan may have apologised for his unacceptable dismissal of Sarah Smith’s victimisation as “imaginary woes” but while welcome it is far from enough.

Unless his party ensures that there are consequences for his or anybody else’s inappropriate actions we cannot be sure that there will be no repetition.

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In fact, all evidence is to the contrary.

The image of politics in this country has taken a massive hit over the past few months and this latest episode can only do further damage – unless of course the First Minister takes the initiative, apologises to Sarah Smith, disciplines those she can and calls for an end to the bile. It’s long past time.

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Christine Jardine is the Scottish Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West

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