When UKIP’s Nigel Farage was recently made rather unwelcome in Edinburgh, a whole slew of Unionist politicians and commentators – most notably Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie – took to the nation’s airwaves and newspaper columns to piously condemn the protestors who peacefully but loudly voiced their disapproval of Farage’s policies. Angry online No supporters, as is their wont, were less measured in their fury at the “suppression” of Farage’s free speech.
Today, the subject of the media’s blanket outrage – there are sizeable stories in the Daily Mail, Telegraph, Scotsman, Herald, Daily Record, The Times, Express and many more – is the saintly British Olympic cyclist, Sir Chris Hoy. The unfortunate sportsman has been the subject of what the Mail calls “vile abuse” for some comments in yesterday’s papers in which he ostensibly refused to take sides in the independence debate (but in reality could barely have made his position any clearer).
But another similar (and rather more serious) story, about online abuse directed at a Scottish public figure every bit as well known as Hoy, inexplicably gets only a microscopic fraction of the coverage.
Frankie Boyle has around 1.4m followers on Twitter – close to three times as many as Hoy’s 500,000. It could quite plausibly be argued that the uncompromising Glasgow comedian is currently the most famous Scot in popular culture. Yet for some reason a story reporting how the police have been involved after abuse leading Boyle to fear for the safety of his children gets just a few short lines in the Herald and appears nowhere else at all that we’ve been able to find.
Impartial observers might think that such an event would be a little more newsworthy than some incredibly mild rudeness being directed at Chris Hoy. The worst of the “vile abuse” described by the Mail and others contained such spine-chilling vitriol as the athlete being called a “soft sod”, a “public schoolboy” and a “tosser”. An accusation of “traitor” being reported in many of the papers, meanwhile, appears to have actually come from a Unionist – the Scotsman quotes it in full as:
“Oh dear Chris, you have just went from being a Scottish hero in the eyes of the Bravehearts to being a traitor, how dare you ?”
Particularly alert readers may have spotted that independence supporters rarely tend to refer to themselves as “the Bravehearts”, sneering references to the 1995 Mel Gibson movie being very much the province of the “Better Together” camp. The only rational interpretation is that a No advocate has decided to dispense with the tiresome notion of actually waiting for a “cybernat” to use the term and just put the words into their mouth anyway.
[EDIT 12.21pm: The Scotsman has now rewritten the story to remove that quote, though it strangely keeps the reference to Hoy allegedly being called a “traitor”. The original existence of the line can still be demonstrated via Google results if you search for the full phrase.]
(It’s notable, however, that after the farce of Calmangate the press has this time been careful to at least supply some evidence of the alleged hate campaign, even if none of it comes remotely close to justifying the shock-horror headlines. We have to assume they’re counting on readers not bothering to get beyond the first paragraph.)
Boyle, on the other hand, is known to have suffered explicit threats before, including people posting what was purported to be his home address and inviting people to assault him there, also in the context of an argument about independence. Now the situation has become so serious the forces of law and order have been dragged in. Yet seemingly the prospect of a violent attack on someone’s family home is less interesting than someone being called a “soft sod” on Twitter.
We hate to be so cynical as to suggest that the respective degrees of media coverage given to the two events bears a direct correlation to the fact that Frankie Boyle supports independence and Chris Hoy and Susan Calman don’t. But it’s hard to draw any other conclusion, when looking purely at the journalistic merits of their stories.
Calman alleged abuse that nobody saw and which she herself admitted to not having read, while Hoy got called a few names that wouldn’t upset an oversensitive X-Factor contestant, and the media expended page after page after page, and huge slabs of TV and radio airtime on them. Boyle had people directly urge physical violence against him, publishing an address (which even if it wasn’t his could have led to whoever did live there having bricks put through their window or worse) and gets 70 words on it in a solitary paper.
(For reference, the paragraph above contains 92 words.)
One might, of course, contend that Boyle is a less likeable character than squeaky-clean Hoy on account of his abrasive comedy style, and therefore less likely to be depicted sympathetically in the press as a victim – the “if you can’t take it, don’t dish it out” argument. But that line collapses when the No camp and its media champions also issue thousands and thousands of strident words on Nigel Farage’s right to espouse his grotesquely unpleasant views without even being shouted at a bit.
So far as we can establish, then, the guidelines go:
1. Disgusting, hate-filled cybernats must not be allowed to criticise in even the mildest of terms anyone who is opposed or neutral to independence, and must be endlessly condemned and disowned by the Yes campaign, the SNP and Alex Salmond personally at every instance of some anonymous internet loony being a bit rude to a British darling.
2. “Better Together”, however, are never to be held responsible for the actions of extremists who support the Union. It’s fine to accuse nutter-fringe Scottish nationalists of anti-English racism and blame the SNP for their actions whether they’re members of the party or not, but for some reason Blair McDougall and Alistair Darling are not conversely accountable for pro-Union racists like the BNP, EDL or Orange Order.
3. People who make controversial and/or offensive statements in favour of independence are basically asking for it, and can expect no media sympathy.
4. Unionists who make controversial and/or offensive statements, though, must have their right to free speech defended at enormous length, even if it’s been impossible to switch on the television without seeing their face and hearing their voice for months. Anyone exercising their lawful right to protest peacefully against them must be declared a “fascist”.
5. It is, however, absolutely fine to call the SNP and supporters of independence fascists and racists – even if you’re not just some ranting anonymous internet sociopath with 26 followers on Twitter, but an elected member of parliament or a journalist on a respectable newspaper with an audience of millions.
Have we missed anything? Abuse must always be condemned, but free speech must always be protected, unless the person speaking freely is in favour of independence, in which case it’s Rafferty’s Rules. Welcome, readers, to the UK media’s triple standard.