Kevin Mckenna: Don’t distort Sarah Smith’s words to suit your own political agenda

OCCASIONALLY, the real world breenges into your manicured media existence as a means of telling you to catch a grip. Not long before Covid, a local shop assistant uttered those golden words that all journalists love to hear while affecting to be horrified by them. “Don’t I recognise you?”

“Perhaps,” said I. Maybe she’d read one of my articles, or caught one of my fleeting appearances on some obscure news show. “I’ve been on that telly a few times.”

“Nope, definitely wasn’t that. Oh yes; I remember now. You did the speech at my daughter’s school recently.”

“Aye, I did,” I preened. How delightful and how lovely of her to mention it.

“You didn’t half bang on, though. I fell asleep about halfway through.” Whereupon I stole a furtive glance behind me lest any of the other shoppers had clocked our knobbly exchange.

READ MORE: Sarah Smith ‘relieved’ to leave ‘bile’ of Scottish politics for BBC America job

Where I currently live there have been several other interventions of this sort, usually in the local pub. I only relate this one as it was the most gloriously succinct of them all.

Scotland’s media and political bubble is a tiny space occupied by about fewer than 1000 people. I could name most of them and almost all are active on Twitter, our social media platform of choice where we discuss and debate what we suppose are the grand issues of the day. Sometimes we post pictures of our artisan and sustainable dinners or the weather or our cats and dogs or the football to convey the impression that we’re all down and edgy with the punters.

We use Twitter to hurl proclamations at each other and to declaim loftily like ham actors in a bad Shakespeare production. These are rarely accompanied by anything as introspective as a question mark. Rather, they are confidently and boldly asserted, brooking absolutely no compromise and daring someone to come ahead if they think they’re clever enough. It’s a bleak and binary terrain where all nuance withers and dies.

Most other people have better things to do than spend the next half hour in a futile endurance test of their ability to count angels on the head of a pin. And so, the way is left clear for other journos and politicos to exhibit their wordsmithery or to pile on top of some wretched cur who’s failed to keep up with the change in wind direction around that week’s chosen ethic.

For a few days this week Scottish Twitter was convulsed by comments made by Sarah Smith, the departing BBC Scotland editor presently en-route to her new appointment as the corporation’s North America editor. It’s a plum posting for Ms Smith and one that’s richly deserved.

The Twitter responses to Ms Smith’s observations fell broadly into three categories: that Scottish politics is a wretched place poisoned by a vast army of Nationalist ultras; that Ms Smith is a Unionist shill who’d been guilty of repeated bias against the cause of independence; that Scotland is a disgusting little country which has lately cut loose from its moral bearings.

READ MORE: Joanna Cherry hung out to dry

Interviewed by Rhys Evans, head of corporate affairs at BBC Wales, Ms Smith said she worried a lot that “the criticism, bile and hatred … that I attract from some quarters is damaging the reputation of the BBC”. She also said that she was “demonised quite heavily … amongst certain parts of the population”. Some of the abuse she received was clearly misogynistic in tone and content.

My own professional and personal opinions of Sarah Smith, for what little they’re worth, are based on observing her as a viewer and being interviewed by her on a handful of occasions. I thought she was a consummate broadcaster doing a job well beyond my limited skill-set and one which exerts much more pressure than any job I’ve ever had to do. She was nothing other than polite, pleasant, respectful and professional in all of our encounters. This was a view widely shared by other print journalists who occasionally found themselves sharing studio space with her during and after the referendum campaign. I honestly do not have a clue as to her personal position on Scotland’s constitutional question.

On a handful of occasions in a decade covering Scottish politics she erred in her interpretation and reporting of political stories and quickly corrected these on social media. Last week, in an online piece for The Herald I mistakenly confused the 1970s Russian gymnast Olga Korbut with her Romanian near-contemporary Nadia Comaneci. I was able to spot the error and to have it changed online before many people had noticed. This has occurred a handful of times without any lasting damage. On those very few occasions where I’ve been subjected to what’s known as a Twitter pile-on it’s usually been deserved.

Unlike much of the criticism endured by Sarah Smith and other prominent women on social media my critics never threaten me with physical violence; slaughter my appearance or cast slights of a sexual nature at me.

Predictably, the Twitter response to Ms Smith’s comments possessed little of any shade and no modulation. Politicians and journalists – all of whom earn handsome salaries from Scottish politics – twisted and distorted her words into a shape that fitted their political agendas. More than a few of them, based entirely on Twitter responses, held Scotland to be in a state that made Gomorrah look like a Tibetan temple.

So, let’s bring some perspective to this. Only around 20% -25% of the UK population use Twitter. It bears little or no resemblance to real, lived experience Scotland. Most of the electorate either don’t use Twitter or merely glance at it now and then as a substitute for going to an actual zoo.

READ MORE: Sarah Smith gaffes: Everything BBC does in Scotland is under a microscope

I have no doubt that Sarah Smith’s testimony is true. I don’t think though, that it’s indicative of a widespread toxic culture in the land. What it says about the self-obsessed, self-anointed savants who occupy Twitter’s parallel kingdom is another matter.

As the first referendum demonstrated clearly, the overwhelming majority of real Scots living beyond Twitter engaged in an emotional and passionate debate with civility and dignity. Politicians who suggest otherwise do so because they become nervous when real people get active.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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