Sticks and stones – and one in the aye for SNP troll Pete…
By Graham Grant
ONE of the great disappointments of recent times for me was being blocked on Twitter by SNP MP Pete Wishart.
True, I had more than once criticised him for his social media output – a steady stream of bilious, ill-advised or abusive content.
Even so, it was tough to bear being deprived of his musings, so I only found out about his travails over the past few days from others lucky enough to be able to view his tweets.
And what a tale of woe he outlined: he has been subjected to a volley of online attacks from fellow Nationalists, with one rather unsportingly calling him an ‘Etonian boot licker’.
Mr Wishart confessed that he had been taken aback by the ‘vehemence’ of people he presumed were political colleagues – and admitted the Yes campaign had a problem with online abuse.
The Perth and North Perthshire MP wrote about the attacks on his blog in an article entitled: ‘We must conduct our debate with respect.’
He said: ‘It would be easy to dismiss this as “just Twitter”, but I know that environment reasonably well and I have to conclude we might have an issue and difficulty in our movement.’
Few would disagree with his sagacity when he pointed out that ‘shouting people down, name-calling and misrepresenting people’s views will not help anybody’.
‘If this happens,’ he warned, ‘people with legitimate views will be silenced and discouraged in coming forward with their own views.’
If you haven’t already pinched yourself, now might be a good time.
For this is indeed the same Pete Wishart who was accused of playing a role in the silencing of the then STV digital politics and comment editor Stephen Daisley back in 2016, after raising concern about his neutrality.
It’s also the same Pete Wishart who for years has given succour to the army of trolls now laying siege to his Twitter account; he is in effect railing against a menace that he helped to create.
He is attempting to close the stable door that he opened – letting in legions of pro-independence activists to spread abuse and misery on social media – long after the horse has bolted.
The reason for Frankenstein’s Monster turning on one of its makers is that Mr Wishart had the temerity to urge caution against demands for another independence referendum.
This made him, in the eyes of his former admirers, just as bad as the ‘yoons’ – the pejorative term for ‘Unionist’ so beloved of Alex Salmond.
The scales fell from Mr Wishart’s eyes when the Tories slashed his majority in the snap election last June from about 10,000 to just 21.
Finally, it seems, he saw the darkness at the heart of Nationalism.
The MP had become something of a liability for the SNP after claiming that political parties who back Scotland remaining in the UK are ‘w****’, while those who favour independence are, naturally, ‘good guys’.
A Holyrood motion by Tory MSP Murdo Fraser urged Nicola Sturgeon to take ‘immediate steps to condemn Mr Wishart’s behaviour and have the SNP whip withdrawn from him’ – the SNP responded by accusing Mr Fraser of ‘faux outrage’.
Mr Wishart also provoked fury for mocking the elderly by referring to supporters of Tony Blair as ‘your embarrassing incontinent old relatives’.
Commons Speaker John Bercow spoke for many when he memorably described Mr Wishart, former keyboardist for Runrig, as an ‘aspiring statesman’, before adding: ‘His aspiration may be a little way from fulfilment.’
But Mr Wishart deserves some praise, at least, for managing to get out his condemnation of his new-found detractors with what one assumes was a straight face.
‘Shouting people down’ has been the stock-in-trade of the SNP and its followers for many years, a shout that became a roar during Twitter’s most ignominious phase, the 2014 ‘indyref’.
Then the veteran pub bores took their bickering about Scotland’s oil reserves into a public forum, traducing opponents in a way that frequently resulted in police involvement.
Back in 2015, Miss Sturgeon pledged to discipline SNP members responsible for poisonous online abuse, after this newspaper unmasked some of the worst offenders.
She also called on politicians who ‘follow’ the abusers to ‘stop feeding the trolls’.
Her comments came after a Mail investigation found that 72 Nationalist MPs and MSPs, including ministers and senior party figures, had online links with people responsible for some of the worst abuse in public life.
The First Minister had met and chatted on social media with a troll who used obscene language against women and threatened two former Labour MPs with violence.
Nearly three years on, it seems the message hasn’t got through to everyone, as I discovered recently when the First Minister’s special adviser, former SNP MSP Stewart Maxwell, ‘liked’ a tweet from ‘Denise Couper’, a vicious web troll.
Hours before, Couper had tweeted directly to me that I was ‘pathetic’ and was ‘willing to sell Scotland out’ – and for good measure she advised me I ‘should be ashamed’.
Well, it’s always nice to get feedback…
I flagged this to Mr Maxwell – clearly by interacting with someone so abusive he risked implicitly condoning her views, even if he did not ‘like’ the abusive comment itself.
What he made of this wasn’t clear, but he didn’t reverse his decision to ‘like’ Couper’s tweet, even after I had alerted him to the abuse elsewhere on her timeline.
Others among the SNP ranks, including Glasgow Central MP Alison Thewliss and Dundee East MP Stewart Hosie, are among Nationalists following Couper, who describes herself as a mother – and ex-Labour Party member.
Given her abusive comments on Twitter, and the state of Labour today, she would probably be welcomed back with open arms…
Of course, it’s no crime to follow such people, or to interact with them, though you might wonder if it’s time for Miss Sturgeon – following Mr Wishart’s lead – to ‘refresh’ her pledge to crack down on online abuse.
As Miss Sturgeon’s spokesman pointed out in 2015, ‘it is not possible to keep up with every comment’ on Twitter.
Mind you, the most offensive Twitter-users tend to be regularly abusive – and the tone of their comments becomes quickly apparent.
Nor is the problem confined solely to independence supporters; there is a minority who let the Unionist side down – but they are greatly outnumbered by the likes of Couper.
While the abuse Mr Wishart has suffered is to be deplored, his movement has been irrevocably contaminated by the hate-peddlers who turned social media into a toxic no-go zone for so many Scots.
Sadly for Mr Wishart, his credibility as the man who can finally bring the trolls to heel is likely to crumble just as quickly as his fast-dwindling majority.
*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail.