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by Louise Wilson
17 August 2022
More leaders must condemn the abuse of journalists

Journalist James Cook was harangued by protesters outside the Perth hustings

More leaders must condemn the abuse of journalists

Arriving at the Conservative leadership hustings in Perth, I was immediately greeted by calls of “scum” by three middle-aged men standing behind the metal barriers.

It wasn’t unexpected. On the train journey to get to the Fair City, I’d been following the sizeable protest, watching reports of Tory members being egged and shouted at. Any journalist who has attended Tory events in the past knows to prepare for it.

What I wasn’t expecting was that when I told the men I was a journalist there to work, the response was simply: “Doesn’t matter. Scum.” I hurried on inside, partly because I didn’t want to engage further and partly because a delayed train meant I only had about 20 minutes before the main event started.

Then the video of the BBC’s James Cook surfaced. Cook carried himself professionally and admirably in the face of being told he was “scum,” a “traitor” and questioned on how long he’d lived in Scotland (as though someone like me, who moved to Scotland as an adult, has any less of a right to opinions about the Scottish constitution than someone born here).

This appalling treatment of the media has been rising in the last decade. Let’s be clear that it is a small minority of people doing it, but they are loud and relentless. Most journalists could tell you of a time they’ve been insulted for simply doing their job, for asking questions of those in power, and for pointing out lies and obfuscation.

I was a BBC journalist before coming to work for Holyrood, and for those three years whenever I was asked who I worked for, I would always pause before answering. Try to assess whether the person I was speaking to would react poorly when I told them. Watch out for signs that revealing that information would lead to being berated for things well beyond my control.

It’s not just limited to Scotland, of course. Shouts of fake news are heard the world over, as people who would rather you didn’t report the truth take umbrage with the fact you are. Exacerbated by social media, being a journalist in this era can be a scary job.

At the same time, it has also made amateur journalists more prominent. Videos and tweets without context are shared around the world in minutes, seen and believed by plenty. They claim to be telling the real truth and accuse the the MSM (that’s mainstream media, to the uninitiated) of lying. Any genuine mistake made by professional journalists quickly becomes something to point to as apparent proof.

On and on the cycle goes, with very few people in power stepping in to stop it because quite frankly the narrative suits them. It creates an environment in which they can better control the story around them. It’s why Donald Trump was such a prolific tweeter.

Nicola Sturgeon – and various other senior SNP politicians – should be applauded for condemning the abuse faced by Cook last night. Political leaders should be standing with journalists to face down such actions.

Inside Perth Concert Hall, the two candidates to be Prime Minister were quick to blame the nationalists for creating the divisive environment. Minutes later, the audience was booing STV’s Colin Mackay for asking whether Brexit and Covid had changed the political landscape enough to warrant a second independence referendum.

Neither Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss told them to stop – and that has become a common occurrence in this race. They should reflect on that.

“Hurling abuse at journalists is never acceptable. Their job is vital to our democracy & it is to report & scrutinise, not support any viewpoint,” the First Minister tweeted. She’s right.

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