Leader comment: Smear has damaged our political debate

When nurse Claire Austin used a live TV debate to raise concerns about the state of the NHS, she was articulating the fears of many voters about our most precious public service.

SNP candidate Joanna Cherry apologised for a serious error of judgment, but the damage was already done.

But within moments of her attack on First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Ms Austin was falling victim to a smear campaign which was given momentum by SNP Westminster candidate Joanna Cherry, who erroneously briefed journalists about the nurse being married to a Tory councillor.

As a QC, Ms Cherry should know the importance of getting one’s fact straight. She has made a serious error of judgment that deserves condemnation, her speedy apology the only thing sparing her from further ignominy.

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In feeding the mob, the bubble-dwellers who live on social media feeding off accusation and conspiracy theory, Ms Cherry has done us all a disservice.

Just over two weeks out from a general election, we should be debating the subjects which matter, and the NHS matters more than most. Instead the story has become the nurse who had the temerity to question the SNP’s record in office.

Every party has supporters who should be kept away from keyboards, but there’s a good chance those attempting to discredit Ms Austin yesterday were among the most outspoken when former Scottish secretary Alistair Carmichael leaked his now infamous civil service memo about Ms Sturgeon. They cannot have it both ways.

Ms Sturgeon was right to describe online trolling of the nurse as unacceptable. But while she is unlikely to publicly criticise one of her party’s candidates in the run-up to an election, she must now have serious questions about Ms Cherry, who until recently was the party’s justice spokeswoman at Westminster.

For the overwhelming majority of voters, the story about Ms Austin
should be a sideshow, a distraction
 from the bigger issues which actually affect people’s lives. On the NHS, most voters want to know how long they will wait for a GP appointment or how society will cope with a looming crisis in social care.

In putting the normally assured Ms Sturgeon on the back foot, Ms Austin landed the sort of blow the SNP’s political opponents have so often failed to deliver.

But it is the reaction of her own candidate and party supporters which should give the First Minister the most cause for concern.