September 18th 2014 | Scotland

Guilt by association

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 18 June 2014
wings tweet

Just last week the Conservatives lodged a motion in Parliament on the tone of the independence debate, calling on both sides for “an end to personal attacks against all people in Scotland who choose to express a view in the independence referendum”.

Yet just a week on, the dialogue has again descended into petty name calling and claims of smear tactics, this time after pro-independence blog Wings over Scotland Tweeted “‘I believe in nuclear disarmament’, lies fat troughing scum Alex Johnstone MSP.”

Johnstone and Better Together have today written to Yes chief executive Blair Jenkins to complain.

Johnstone’s letter reads: “I’ve been in politics for long enough to know that it’s a contact sport and that, particularly in the age of social media, politicians can expect a rough ride from people who disagree with them.

So while I don’t take great delight in reading a tweet from Wings over Scotland describing me as a “fat, troughing scum”, it’s not something that bothers me unduly.

What does concern me, however, is when idiots like this are given legitimacy by organisations like yours which are supposed to rise above personal abuse.

You cannot deny this is the case: a recent booklet issued from your office provides a link to the Wings over Scotland website, suggesting that people look at the website to get information “you won’t find on television or in the newspapers”.

I see it also praises the website for “dissecting arguments, debunking myths”.

If describing an MSP as a “fat, troughing scum” is your idea of a well-made argument or a clever way to debunk myths, then the standard of our national debate really has fallen into disrepair.

I do not care what Wings over Scotland says about me or any other Pro-Union politician.

But I do think as a supposedly reputable campaigning organisation, you should immediately condemn this abuse, and remove the link to the website from your official material.”

Calling an MSP “fat troughing scum” is abusive, rude and frankly unimaginative.

Aside from that it does nothing to help anyone make up their mind about which way to vote.

In fact, as Jim Sillars pointed out in an open letter to the so-called ‘cyber nats’ on 10.01pm: “If you were being paid by the No side to be cyber louts bringing the Yes side into public disrepute, you could not do a better job”. This could easily apply to Wings.

But Better Together have picked it up in the hope it will make Yes look guilty of abuse through association.

Wings over Scotland may be zealous but it is also an independent outlet and it is highly unlikely Yes had anything to do with the tweet.

It is true that the Yes leaflet Johnstone refers to mentions Wings as a source of ‘information you won’t find on television or newspaper’. In fact the tweet does a pretty good job of demonstrating why that information is confined to the internet.

But it is 16th in a list of 20 sources on the leaflet and Yes do not have editorial control of the site, or indeed its Twitter account.

Yes have issued a statement saying: “Mr Johnstone is wrong to say that this leaflet was issued from the office of Yes Scotland. It was a local leaflet produced by a local group in Edinburgh, which provided links to 20 websites for information, and its distribution has now been discontinued.”

Trying to tie the official Yes campaign to Wings comes across as smear, in response to a smear. The independence debate has finally reached the stage of the meta-smear.

It may be a tactical mistake for Yes to promote Wings in future – apart from anything else it is already well known. The letter will just give it more publicity – the very thing Better Together are criticising Yes for.

And Johnstone is right to warn that the standard of national debate could be falling into disrepair. But the fault lies on both sides.

But apart from ceasing to promote Wings there is little Yes can do, beyond Alex Salmond personally intervening in an attempt to silence the blog. The problem with that is that it would leave him open to accusations of behaving like Kim Jong-Il.

Liam Kirkaldy