"I didn’t want my children to hear, in the playground, your dad’s had a death threat": MSPs on the mood surrounding politics

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 11 April 2019 in Inside Politics

Holyrood brings together five MSPs to talk about the abuse and the threats they face from doing their jobs

Image credit: Cat Thomson

Ross Greer was elected as the youngest MSP in the Scottish Parliament’s history, and it wasn’t long before he received his first death threat. Alex Cole-Hamilton, also elected in 2016, was instructed to carry an attack alarm after a rise in online abuse coincided with 2,500 empty envelopes being posted, hand addressed, to his office. Most recently, police advised Tory MSP Annie Wells to start varying her route to work.

These measures are common across the Scottish Parliament, regardless of party or political allegiance. Security was stepped up following the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox in June 2016, shortly before the EU referendum, with three-quarters of MSPs now having had security reviews at their local offices, while the Scottish Parliament has been forced to spend around £40,000 on security modifications for MSPs in the last 12 months, putting in devices such as metal shutters on shopfronts, intercoms, and strengthened front doors and counters. A total £14,000 has been spent on lone worker safety devices over the last two years alone.

Meanwhile, Police Scotland has expressed concern over growing hostility towards politicians. As Deputy Chief Constable Will Kerr put it: “People have a right to protest lawfully and peacefully, and we will protect the right to do so, while making sure that politicians are allowed to go about their very important business over the next couple of weeks and months with the full assurance and support of Police Scotland that they can do so safely.

“That is our increasing concern about the very febrile, some very aggressive, some very hostile comments that we have seen playing out on social media sites – making sure that doesn’t translate to actual physical interaction and contact with our politicians as they go about their important business.”

And so, with concern over the safety of elected representatives seemingly at an all-time high, Holyrood brought together a cross-party group of MSPs to discuss the state of political discourse, and how heightened security concerns impact on their ability to do their jobs. Yet, while the MSPs featured are obviously concerned about the impact on those around them, the startling thing about watching them discuss panic alarms, door entry systems, police reports and techniques for coping with abuse online is how accepting they are of the new measures.

Scottish Labour MSP Anas Sarwar told Holyrood: “I think we all create our own version of normal. My normal is not most people’s normal. I grew up in a household where threats and abuse, and the threat of violence, were a regular occurrence [his father, Mohammad Sarwar, has been a senior politician in both the UK and Pakistan and is currently the governor of Punjab]. Maybe that conditions you, to a certain extent.”

He adds: “We’ve had to increase security at our home. We’ve had to make the staff at my kids’ nursery and school aware of potential issues as well. I have the panic alarm, though I don’t like carrying it, but I have it. One of my staff has had to get a lone worker panic alarm as well, for when she’s in the constituency office in Glasgow. I’ve been advised I should never travel alone, and I think twice whenever I am using public transport now as well, if I’m being honest. These are all considerations you have to make.”

The others murmur agreement, as if none of this is particularly unusual to them. Scottish Green MSP Ross Greer gained national prominence following recent comments on Winston Churchill, leading to an online spat with broadcaster Piers Morgan. But while his newfound celebrity produced a spike in online threats and abuse, he says it wasn’t the first time he has found himself inundated with aggressive comments and messages.

“The first time I got specific, physical threats – death threats online – was from white nationalists. Explicit neo-Nazis, who were cottoning to the fact that I was advocating votes based on residency, and that meant votes for refugees and asylum seekers. That was the first time I had that, but at that point, it didn’t feel particularly real. It still felt distant then, because I never really got the impression many of those messages were actually coming from folk living anywhere near me. That was the difference with the Churchill stuff, that was coming from folk [in Scotland]. I could tell by the football club in their profile picture that these were people who were probably not far from me at all. That really changed it. Within three hours of that Piers Morgan interview, 40,000 people had tweeted me. The scale of it was on a level I’d never experienced before.”

The other MSPs clearly recognise how a spike in media attention can bring a concurrent jump in abuse. Greer continues: “What changed for me – and it had gradually been happening before then anyway – but what really changed on the back of the Churchill stuff was a kind of loss of anonymity. When people come up to me on the bus, or on the street, or on the train, because they recognise me, I find myself making a split-second judgement about what kind of interaction this is going to be, and whether it will be hostile or not. It doesn’t just affect me, but also other people around me. It’s particularly when you’re in a confined space, in a bus or train, you feel much more on edge about these kinds of interactions. Most of the interactions are overwhelmingly positive, but you can’t guarantee that, and with the sheer volume of really extreme abuse that was coming my way, it just made me constantly on edge. You have to figure out what every interaction is going to be like, and if it is hostile, how you are going to extract yourself from that, who else is around, who might get involved or not, and that’s quite a change. There is no escape from that if you’re out in public.”

Scottish Tory MSP Annie Wells says she has also seen a rise in abuse online since being elected in 2016. She says: “It depends what you put up. As soon as I put anything up on opposing indyref2, that’s when the floodgates open and that’s when I get it the majority of the time. But it can be something simple as well. If I put a selfie of Angela [her partner] and I going out, you get [abusive] messages. A lot of people in Scotland will disagree with my politics – there’s quite a few of them – and have a go at me about it, but don’t start getting personal because you actually know nothing about me or my circumstances or what I’ve been through in my life. But threats have become normal.”

The feeling of a rising intolerance in public debate is shared around the room, while every MSP has had to make that split-second calculation over whether or not someone approaching them represents a danger, and what they will do if the situation turns.

SNP MSP Jenny Gilruth says being in a relationship with former Labour leader Kezia Dugdale has brought a loss of the sort of anonymity Greer talks about. She explains: “I’m so much more aware of it now because of Kez than I ever was before, because frankly, if it was just me walking down the street, no one would look at me twice. But I like that I still have that anonymity, and I find it difficult that other people don’t.”

Does Gilruth find she gets more abuse because she is in a relationship with a high-profile politician?

“Yeah,” she says. “Yesterday Kez wrote a tweet and tagged me in it, and as a result I was tagged in loads of things, from both sides of the debate, but I found it really difficult to read some of the things, particularly if I know some of the individuals who are tweeting. One guy I know tweeted something in the week [to Kezia Dugdale] saying, ‘Finish her’, with a video graphic of somebody killing someone. She showed it to me, asking, ‘Can you believe someone posted that?’, and I said, ‘I know that guy, I’ve campaigned with him’. I found that really difficult, the guy is a family man, I know him personally, and yet he puts this on the internet.”

Yet while higher profile politicians will attract a greater volume of offensive or threatening messages, every MSP present has had to hold discussions with police over their safety.

Scottish Lib Dem MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton says: “The police came to see me about some of the Twitter stuff I was getting because they said it was getting pretty dark. Then they agreed a budget with parliament to beef up security, some of which hasn’t been spent yet, but there you go.

“I have a duty of care towards my staff. I have great guys working for me in the constituency, and most of the time I’m in a fortress here [in the Scottish Parliament] but they’re there, nine to five, Monday to Friday, on the front line, in terms of my visibility, so they are at risk and I want to protect them.”

The other MSPs nod at this, even if they all also insist they want people to come and say hello if they see them out in public. As Greer puts it: “Ninety-nine per cent of the interactions I’ve had in the street are good, it’s just that one per cent you worry about.”

Sarwar adds: “We’re not anti-social, but I completely get where Ross is coming from. You’ve got to make a judgement call. You know, I’ve had my boy say to me before, ‘I wish you were just my dad, why can’t we just go out somewhere and you just concentrated on me, and be my dad?’ That was tough. And it’s not to say people have been bad, they’ve not been, or not always, but that side of it is the hardest. I don’t feel that any of us are victims, we’re lucky we’ve got a platform, and a voice, and if we see something or experience it then we have a platform to talk about it. In the vast majority of prejudice and hate, people don’t have a platform, they don’t have a voice.”

Cole-Hamilton also worries about the effect his profile has on those around him.

“I’m always conscious about thing that are printed, that kids might see or hear about what’s printed in the paper, because I don’t want my kids to be unduly alarmed. I want them to feel safe. I got a death threat before Christmas from Leamington Spa over my support for increasing the age of criminal responsibility to 14 or 16, and this person wanted it lowered to three. The police took that really seriously. I absolutely didn’t want to make a fuss about it, because I didn’t want my children to hear, in the playground, your dad’s had a death threat. I don’t want them to feel scared.”

And with the growth of social media, that need to calculate the risk involved in interactions doesn’t end when MSPs get home at night.

Gilruth says: “I had a guy tweet me, not that long ago, about Brexit, after I had retweeted something from the First Minister. His comment to me was that we should both be hanged. Then I looked at his page, and he stays about five miles from my house. So I got a bit freaked out by it, but then I looked at his profile and, I know this sounds silly, but you kind of make a judgement call. But you don’t know when to take something seriously or not. Because you don’t really know, when someone puts something online, where is the line? When do you start thinking, yes, this is a threat? I decided he wasn’t a threat, that’s he’s just a daft man, but actually, it’s a pretty serious thing to wish on someone.”

In fact, Gilruth says she decided not to refer the message to the police. “I decided he wasn’t very well, from looking at his other tweets. That’s a judgement call I’ve made, and I obviously may live to regret it, though I hope not. For whatever reason, he doesn’t like the SNP, and he is in favour of Brexit, so that’s his politics, and the reason he is lashing out isn’t because he actually wants me to die, or the First Minister to die, he is just very angry Brexit hasn’t happened.”

Again, the MSPs emphasise they want people to approach them in public, but concern over a small minority who could pose a threat clearly takes its toll. Apart from anything else, having to carry out that risk assessment, familiar to everyone present, over whether someone wants to talk politics or potentially poses a risk, must be exhausting. So what can be done?

For her part, Annie Wells believes there is more that social media firms could do. She says: “After the press coverage [of threats Wells was receiving], Twitter got in touch. The go-between from the UK Government at Westminster and Twitter does a weekly meeting with security services at Westminster, who have access to Twitter and look to see what is going up on members’ accounts. They can report that direct to Twitter, with one point of contact, and they asked if that would be helpful up here as well, and I said, ‘Absolutely’. They also do a lot of work with the police to tell them what they can ask Twitter to do – the types of different orders, the types of different work Twitter could do in terms of those who are being abusive or threatening – and we’re expecting a response. But I think there’s more they could do, beyond advising that you have a mute button and block button, because we are all internally curious, and when you get a warning saying, ‘This tweet may contain offensive material’, you still look at it. Of course, you do. And you can mute or block but other people will still see it, and it’s still out there.”

Meanwhile, Greer also identifies the need for a change in the way political debate – and media coverage – is conducted. He says: “As soon as parliamentary security become aware there’s an issue with a member, they are in touch, they are incredibly thorough to the point I think most MSPs will turn down some of the security they offer, because it takes it to a point that you’re not living a normal life. But I can’t fault them. It is about figuring out how we tackle issues with wider discourse, though.

“Politicians need to take some responsibility for that, absolutely, and then a responsibility lies with media too. If you think about coarse discourse that encourages people to feel they can say anything with no consequence, or use language that’s increasingly violent or dehumanising, that doesn’t just exist on social media. It’s on the front page of tabloid newspapers every single day. It has consequences which are far worse than encouraging people to tweet threatening stuff at us.”

Yet although all the politicians featured stress the priority they place over the safety of staff, there is also a concern over how the cost of security measures might be received by the public. Greer suggests decision-making should be taken out of the hands of MSPs themselves, so that specific costs for security improvements are not chalked up against individual politicians.

Gilruth nods: “After Jo Cox was murdered, we all had our offices checked out. We had local police come in and they produced a report for the office. You were then allowed to apply to the corporate body to have your office upgraded. But, my office costs aren’t that big, it’s an old building in Markinch, the previous MSP had it, and the cost won’t be comparable to somewhere like Glasgow, but I certainly felt that if I submit to the corporate body and asked for ‘x, y, z’, you can see the headlines tomorrow: ‘Jenny Gilruth demands this for her constituency office, what an outrage’.

“We can’t really be objective as politicians about our own personal security if we’re asked to submit for payment for it. I think there’s a bit of a conflict there and I’m not necessarily sure we’ve got it right. I think we should all be entitled to a basic level of security in our offices and I have a concern that, the way it’s done at the moment, it’s predicated on cost and on individuals, as opposed to saying that every MSP needs to have an office that meets their needs and is safe. I know the police highlighted a number of concerns with my constituency office, but I feel I’m a bit constrained about saying that I wanted ‘x, y, z’. There are things we could do and I just wouldn’t do it, because you open yourself up if you do that as an MSP.”

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