Dani Garavelli: Holyrood circus makes a mockery of abuse crisis

Mark McDonald talks to journalists on his return to parliament as an independent MSP last week. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA
Mark McDonald talks to journalists on his return to parliament as an independent MSP last week. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA
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Maybe you are fed up reading about sexual harassment. I know I am fed up writing about it. At the beginning of every week, I say to myself: “And now for something completely different.” But events, dear boys (and girls), events. More shit happens. And I get angry. And I find I myself writing about it again.

This week, the catalyst was Mark McDonald’s return to the Scottish Parliament after his four-month absence, an event that played out in such an astonishing and counterproductive manner, I cannot let it pass without comment.

The first offensive thing about McDonald’s return was that it happened at all. Given he had admitted behaving inappropriately to several women; given he accepted this behaviour was serious enough to warrant his resignation first as minister for Childcare and Early Years and then from the SNP, he should also have stepped down as MSP for Aberdeen Donside. This would have triggered a by-election and – had he chosen to stand again – allowed voters in his constituency to decide whether or not they wanted him to continue to represent them as an independent (rather than just assuming it on their behalf).

A resignation would have allowed McDonald to salvage a degree of dignity and given the women who made the allegations some space. Instead, he took the unilateral decision that he was “morally justified” in staying on (and thus continuing to draw his £62,000-a-year salary). In interviews, he said he was “asking” for a second chance, but, in reality, he was demanding it. The Scottish Parliament has no equivalent of Westminster’s power of recall, so – at least for now – MSPs have no choice but to thole his presence.

If McDonald’s decision to return was regrettable, then the way it was handled was even worse. Everything about it – his grandstanding, the party politicking, the press pack’s undisguised glee at the scent of a fox – reflected badly on our democratic institutions and conspired – yet again – to ensure the only needs that went unserved were those of the women at the centre of the allegations.

You only have to look at the press conference the MSP gave on Tuesday. I have heard it said, he had no choice; that making a formal public statement was the only way to get the pack off his tail. Certainly, so frenzied was the chase, beleaguered media officers were forced to send out an email reminding reporters that unless they had bikes or were using the showers or lockers, they had no right of access to the basement (where McDonald’s office is situated).

Anyway, back to the press conference, where – under duress or not – McDonald was holding court. Sipping from a water bottle, he refused to describe his behaviour as “harassment” or his victims as “women” (which is the exact opposite of owning it). He then took questions from a succession of male reporters. I am not exaggerating: there appeared to be more than 30 men in the room and three women. Only one female voice was heard – that of ITV Border’s Holyrood-based political correspondent Kathryn Samson – and only then because she shouted a question as McDonald was heading out the door; he didn’t answer.

When you see this kind of thing – and you do, time and time again – you 
cannot help but wonder: What Is It Going To Take For Things To Change? Will the men who run our media ever stop and think: “Here is a story all 
about the subordination of women – perhaps we should have some women covering it?”

Shocking though it was, the press conference was only part of the problem. Also unedifying was Labour trying to make political capital by calling for a redacted version of the SNP’s report to be published and handed to the police (though there was no indication the women involved had been asked how they felt about this).

Over in the SNP camp, James Dornan – upset that Holyrood appeared to be protecting McDonald, while offering little support to the victims – had already made an official complaint about his behaviour towards a female staff member to the Committee for Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments, which in turn passed it on to the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland. Later, Dornan referred to the woman involved having suffered a stroke and, though he made it clear he wasn’t holding McDonald responsible, by mentioning it at all he established a link in people’s minds as well as creating an opportunity for some overblown and emotive headlines.

The cumulative effect of all this was the same as always; it deflected attention away from the important underlying issues. The focus on one protagonist altered the narrative; instead of it being a story about male power dynamics where McDonald was emblematic of institutionalised sexism, it became a story of an individual’s character flaws. The consequence is that claiming McDonald’s scalp has become an end in itself, his departure ostensibly the act that would rid Scottish Parliament of its ills, where, in fact it would merely mean one less ripple in the pool. It also more or less erased the victims’ voices, removed their agency and allowed others with vested interests to dominate the conversation.

Since the Westminster sexual harassment scandal broke last year, the emphasis has supposed to have been on making it easier for victims to report abuse. But any woman observing last week’s fall-out would surely have had her worst fears confirmed; would have concluded that, right enough, it isn’t worth the hassle.

In reality, we know this is not all about McDonald: the survey into sexual harassment at Holyrood showed one in five of those who responded had been affected by sexist behaviour with 45 per cent of those saying the perpetrator was an MSP; though I still believe he should have gone, it is more important to address the entrenched attitudes that produce such a sense of entitlement.

So let’s take some time out to reflect on another week that has served as a template of how not to do things and apply our minds to more constructive proposals, such as Kezia Dugdale’s suggestion of an anonymous reporting system where four complaints against the same man would automatically trigger an investigation.

If we want to effect meaningful change, we need to take the long view. To think about how the macho culture exemplified by that testosterone-filled press conference can be eradicated. Not to fixate on one man who may, for all we know, be enjoying the attention.