Herald View: It is time to clamp down on the abuse on all sides

IT is depressing, telling and damning that the immediate response when Sarah Smith, the BBC’s former Scotland Editor, claimed she had been subjected to “bile, hatred and misogyny” during her time in the job was a torrent of further abuse. Not merely from the anonymous trolls of social media, from whom one expects nothing else, but, disgracefully, from politicians. The MSP James Dornan accused Ms Smith of imagining the whole thing, and the former MP Phil Boswell called her a “traitor”.

The SNP should be ashamed to have senior party figures voicing such repugnant sentiments – incidentally, solid evidence of the behaviour Ms Smith complains of – and disown them. Independence cannot help being a highly divisive issue, but no political belief, however deeply felt, can justify intolerant bullying and personal attack.

But, though a small minority of nationalists have a particular problem in this area, the decline of civilised public discourse is widespread, and confined neither to Scotland nor supporters of a Yes vote. It now seems almost impossible for some people (on every side of these questions) to take a rational approach to Brexit, Covid restrictions, vaccine mandates, transgender issues and a slew of other important political and cultural faultlines.

Too often a political or ideological difference of any sort is instead seen as licence to hector, harass and harangue, to encourage “pile-ons”, pitchfork mentality and personal abuse, and even calls for people to lose their jobs, be “cancelled” or silenced, or suggestions that violence should be directed at them.

This is not about obvious jokes or hyperbole; it rises far above fierce debate or even the occasionally rude rough and tumble to be expected when people take sharply different views. It is about real, vindictive assaults that have a direct impact on mental health and even physical safety.

Lest we forget, two MPs in English constituencies (one Labour and one Tory, though their own politics ought to be entirely irrelevant) have been murdered in recent years; both the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition have faced unacceptable abuse, far beyond reasonable protest, on the streets in the past couple of weeks.

A few moments online will provide plenty of evidence of similar vitriol directed at the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, much of it rooted not in political points but of a highly offensive personal nature. Sadly, misogyny, as well as the old stalwarts of racism, anti-Semitism and religious bigotry, is quite often a feature of these cowardly denunciations.

The ability to conduct rational and civil discussions, even if they involve vehement disagreement or condemnation of an opposing position, is a sine qua non of liberal democracy. Robust criticism of broadcasters and politicians is perfectly reasonable, as is the freedom to express any legal opinion, but the kind of abuse now prevalent goes well beyond the acceptable, and should be tackled head-on. Attacks unacceptable in public spaces are equally indefensible online.

Social media outlets and, in some cases, the police have been inconsistent in handling this issue, clamping down on trivial comments or ill-founded complaints, while ignoring toxic and vicious attacks that endanger individuals and corrode the very basis of civil society. That must change.

CONGRATULATIONS to the GB curling teams on their spectacular results at the Winter Olympics. Both the men’s and women’s teams have reached the finals, the latter after a nail-biting finish yesterday. Over the weekend they challenge Sweden and Japan respectively for the gold, with a silver medal already assured. A win for either team would be Great Britain’s first gold in the sport since 2002 at Salt Lake City.

Scotland, with its already dominant record, can take particular pride in this achievement, not only because Scots make up both teams and a third of the athletes in Team GB as a whole, but because every stone sent down the rink in Beijing started off its journey on Ailsa Craig. We send our best wishes to the Olympians, hoping today’s the day that curling’s coming home.

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