Friday, 13 April 2012

In defence of Lyall Duff, and other smears

Lyall Duff, the SNP candidate in North Lanarkshire whose ill-judged language and offensive comments on Facebook were "exposed" in the Daily Telegraph a couple of weeks ago, has apparently resigned from the SNP tonight, ending the party's disciplinary procedure against him.

"Exposed" is of course an odd word for this. What the Telegraph actually did was trawl through his - and probably a lot of others' - social media history looking for things which could be used to embarrass him and his party, and then wait for the opportune moment to publicise them. Doing so days after close of nominations for the upcoming election meant maximum damage because the SNP couldn't replace him on the ballot.

Yes, some of what he's said in the past was thoughtless, and some of it was offensive. There is an argument that says his comments illuminate the type of man he is, and so their exposure is justified and the end result appropriate. But he said most of them years ago. And they were only preserved because so much of today's idle conversation is now typed rather than spoken. It seems clear that the offensive comments were no more careful statements of his considered belief than any random conversation any of us might have had down the pub. And would you want to be held to account for every pub conversation you've ever had? I wouldn't.

David Cameron, when being pursued about allegations of drug-taking in his youth, said "I think it's an important principle that politicians are entitled to a private past". Yes, I did just quote the Tory PM to justify the defence of an SNP politician. No, I'm feeling fine, thanks. Cameron, in this rare instance, was absolutely right. It is ludicrous to expect politicians to be beyond reproach. What is important is how they behave in office, how they deal with responsibility, and whether they are true to the promises they make. And, crucially, how they deal with their mistakes. If we restrict ourselves to electing only those who have never made a mistake or changed their mind we will end up with the worst politicians possible.

This sort of cheap social-media copy-and-paste is starting to pop up all over the place pretending to be journalism. Just last weekend, the Sunday Herald ran a piece about Dominic Dowling, who is currently working on the Glasgow Labour re-election campaign, claiming he had dealt a "body blow" to Labour with online criticisms of the party. In reality, the journalist had simply read LabourHame, a public site set up in the aftermath of last year's election defeat, where Labour members were discussing what went wrong. His perfectly reasonable comments, similar to many others', were made in June 2011, a fact which the Sunday Herald only mentions later in the piece having implied that they were recent.

Even worse, the Daily Record last weekend ran a piece claiming an SNP activist had "targeted" a celebrity on Twitter. Nowhere do they acknowledge that Josh Wilson made the comments two years ago, when he was 17, and that they had no bearing on his current role in the party. The piece again deliberately tries to attribute the comments to the present.

It all makes me think back to when I was 17 (a long time ago). If social media had been around then, my profile could well have been full of the homophobic defensiveness I wouldn't escape from for another year as I struggled to accept my sexuality. Would that have been valid ammunition against me two years later? I hope not. Not only do people's opinions change, but they should have the right to express themselves in a social context without it being held up as representing their view years later.

Sure, if a politician says one thing in a campaign and is then exposed as privately saying something else, that is a valid story. It shows hypocrisy. But shutting down political careers before they have started because of comments made socially years ago? That's not journalism, and it's not politics. It's grubby, it's self-defeating, and it needs to stop.