John McLellan: Social media reform can’t happen too soon

Given the abuse to which she was subjected, Ruth Davidson's decision to quit social media is understandable. Picture: PA
Given the abuse to which she was subjected, Ruth Davidson's decision to quit social media is understandable. Picture: PA
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It might not be wise for someone involved in journalism and politics to admit not being a great one for social media, but there I’ve done it. Yes, I’ve got accounts on all the usual stuff like Twitter, Linkedin and Facebook and use WhatsApp from time to time but Snapchat and Instagram? Forget it.

I set up a Tumblr thing years ago for no reason other than it was new but Tumbleweed would be a better name for all the use I make of it, and in my own tiny way I contributed to the demise in June of the Scottish service Kiltr by never using that account either.

I do send the odd message and retweet a few bits and pieces, but use it mainly for gathering information and very, very rarely indulge in online spats. Although social media interaction is regarded as part of the job in modern journalism and political promotion, it remains a source of amazement that it can command the attention of busy people when so much of the response is unrestrained hate.

One highly-skilled exponent of the social media arts was Ruth Davidson, who always had the knack of catching the right balance between humour and a pointed put-down without descending to abuse, her “You OK, hun?” Tweet to a raging Jim Murphy being the best example.

As a natural broadcaster it’s a medium with which she was comfortable, but even when she was not regarded as a threat by political opponents she could be subjected to the vilest abuse. Since then the attack lines have steadily grown to a torrent, perhaps to be expected for someone who has been in office for so long through the most turbulent period in post-war British politics, but the only surprise in her decision to quit social media is that it took so long.

She is not alone; First Minister Nicola Sturgeon too gets it in spades from extreme Unionists which is every bit as unacceptable, but while it’s accepted social media is a communications Wild West solutions are thin on the ground. Rape threats often go uninvestigated, as Ruth Davidson said, but every minute criminal threats, defamatory statements and contempts of court are made which will go unpunished. On the rare occasion a perpetrator is caught they are usually inadequates who thought it was just a bit of fun, such as the wee man in a Dumfries bedsit who got a shock when uniformed police arrived on his doorstep for sending very sinister threats to a Scotsman reporter when I was the editor.

Thanks to Cambridge Analytica, we know abuse extends from insults to abuses of democracy and the issue was discussed in a Scottish Electoral Commission consultation group this week. Election campaign spending was once easy to track by the number of newspaper ad and leaflets, but tracking every expertly-targeted Facebook post is impossible. And what happens if the source is an office of spooks in Novosibirsk and the election was six months earlier?

Following the revelations about the misuse of personal data in the EU Referendum campaign, two years on and the Information Commissioner is still considering levying a £500,000 fine on Facebook. Government communications watchdog Ofcom is now looking at social media regulation, and no matter how futile it turns out to be, social media reform can’t come quickly enough.

Tourist tax wrangle

The wrangle between the Scottish Government and Edinburgh Council’s SNP group over the tourist tax shows no sign of ending with the failure so far of the council to engage with the Scottish Tourism Alliance, the biggest trade group in the sector.

A written parliamentary answer from Finance Secretary Derek Mackay a fortnight ago said that neither the STA not its member organisations had been approached “in any substantive way” by Edinburgh Council and in advance of Thursday’s council meeting I called to see if the situation had changed. Predictably, it hadn’t .

The conundrum is simple; the Council needs Holyrood legislation to raise the tax, to get the legislation it needs Scottish Government support, to get Scottish Government support it needs to win over the tourism industry, to win over the tourism industry it can’t ignore the most important trade association. Yet the council seems to think the STA can be by-passed, which makes it less likely the Government will be persuaded.

Even if the Government position changes, the need for extensive consultation, the drafting of legislation, further consultation on the draft and the legislative process itself means it is 99 per cent certain no law will be passed before the 2021 election.

But despite this, the SNP-Labour administration included the £11m a year it hopes a tourism tax will raise, and a workplace parking tax which also needs new laws, in a budget consultation document published yesterday. Dishonest might be putting it too strongly, but it’s certainly misleading to suggest that its £28m budget problem can be alleviated by tax income it can’t collect.

Unique tribute to legend

Unique, as the late Sandy Strang would have quickly pointed out, is an over-used and usually inaccurate word. But last Sunday a lunch to commemorate the life of the teacher, entertainer, writer and sportsman could only be described as unique because it was addressed by not one but seven after-dinner speakers who became his friends as he developed his second career on the rubber chicken circuit.

MC was retired lawyer Bill Copeland, joined by ex-policeman John McKelvie, ex-SPL referee Willie Young, Glasgow Sheriff Lindsay Wood, retired banker Peter Brown, legendary sprinter George McNeill , and capped by the riveting former Motherwell footballer John Gahagan who also spoke at Sandy’s funeral in May 2017. With all delivering their full routines, the event in aid of Marie Curie which started at 12.30 didn’t finish till after 6pm. Sandy would have loved every second.