Think before you tweet, or political debate will become even more toxic - Adam Morris

Demonstrators outside the BBC offices in Pacific Quay, Glasgow, protest about perceived bias against the Scottish independence movement in 2018Demonstrators outside the BBC offices in Pacific Quay, Glasgow, protest about perceived bias against the Scottish independence movement in 2018
Demonstrators outside the BBC offices in Pacific Quay, Glasgow, protest about perceived bias against the Scottish independence movement in 2018
If you want an insight into the standard of online political debate in Scotland at the moment, check out BBC Scotland’s recent Twitter announcement of Glenn Campbell as its new political editor.

It’s a major gig, and both Campbell and the man he’s replacing, Brian Taylor, are hugely respected by politicians and journalists alike.

And so it proved among the initial responses from respected “blue tick” accounts.

But it didn’t take long to turn.

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Within no time at all, one user had dropped what they were doing with their day to work on doctoring a photograph of Islay’s finest to make it look like he was wearing a Union Jack tie.

That was soon followed by the eloquently expressed charge that he is “the biggest unionist in Pacific Quay”. I’m sure any pro-UK politician who’s been rinsed by Campbell live on air would struggle to recognise that description.

But while all this was happening, the barbs were coming in from the other side too.

“The SNP’s new lap dog. What a joy,” said one, shortly followed by this from another account: “Congratulations to the new SNP spokesperson at the BBC.”

One added that he would now be taking his news from Al-Jazeera (famed for its in-depth coverage of Scottish affairs), so furious was he with the appointment.

On the plus side, as any journalist will tell you, if both sides are accusing you of bias then it’s probably proof you’re doing a pretty balanced job.

Like most political hacks in Scotland, he’ll be well-used to the abuse and hopefully treats it with the contempt it deserves.

But what should worry us all is the prospect of this pond-life standard of debate increasing and intensifying as we approach the most significant Holyrood election in the history of devolution.

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And if politicians and other prominent campaigners – on all sides – don’t start leading by example, it will be the most toxic too.

This has to start with the treatment of journalists on social media by those who should know better.

Leading politicians across the whole UK are repeatedly guilty of overt attacks on journalists and newspapers, with the more sneaky ones encouraging pile-ons from their rabid sympathisers then shrugging their shoulders when it all gets out of hand.

The tactic is clear – to knock down a story or issue by insinuating the author and/or editors are riddled with partiality.

It’s a complete nonsense.

I worked on the media frontline with the Scottish Conservatives for eight years, dealing with the country’s journalists every single day – newspapers, radio and television – and I can say with more authority than any “cybernat” or “cyberbrit” that there is no embedded political bias among the nation’s political media pack.

In fact, they are so occupied getting stories filed amid the busiest political period in decades that there’s simply no time for partisanship, even if they wanted to.

Any self-respecting media officer from the other parties will tell you the same thing.

That’s not to say you don’t burn with rage when a story drops that you think is unfair, or perhaps an attack on another political party hasn’t landed in the way you’d have liked.

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But stand back and look at the evidence over time. If the Daily Record was blinded by its Labour roots would it have exposed uncomfortable stories about racism towards MSP Anas Sarwar?

The Daily Mail is supposedly pro-Tory, yet it repeatedly lambasts the party on its front page on everything from Brexit to lockdown.

Even the National, which happily admits on its masthead to being pro-independence, were professional and polite in their dealings with the Conservative press office.

But this is about more than the sensitivities of journalists, most of whom laugh off social media criticism, at least on the face of it.

If Scotland is to survive the global spread of “fake news” which pollutes Facebook and Twitter, the only gatekeepers who can really keep it all in check are the established media.

Yes, there may be the odd online resource which earnestly produces stories on niche matters of political interest, but they are never going to be accessible nor appealing to the masses.

And no matter how honestly it goes about producing material, it would be an extremely unhealthy democracy which accessed most of its news directly from government.

The temperature has to be turned down now on social media, because a mildly aggressive tweet from an elected representative legitimises angrier, more abusive and vile contributions from those who aren’t in office.

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One MSP recently suggested on Twitter that he would like to see executives of Shell – a company which employs thousands of people across the UK – prosecuted. What kind of message does that send to headcases who’d take rhetoric and turn it into physical action?

Already, stories have started to emerge of candidates for the upcoming election being forced to apologise for the things they’ve said or shared on social media.

This paper ran a story recently about a candidate who had to issue a grovelling apology practically before he’s even posted a single election leaflet.

Political leaders in all parties should be laying down the law as a matter of urgency.

Don’t tweet something you wouldn’t say to your opponents in the street, and bear in mind that you’re not a comedian, and therefore unlikely to pull off tasteless gags.

And if you genuinely worry about the “fake news” era, stop trying to dismantle the practice of journalism which is, of course, the very antithesis to it.

With Covid-19 restrictions lingering, more of the Holyrood 2021 campaign will be conducted online than any previous election, from hustings to leaders’ debates.

It’s the responsibility of those at the top to ensure it’s an acceptable environment for all.

Adam Morris is former head of media for the Scottish Conservatives



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