Nick Cohen

Press censorship has begun in Scotland

Press censorship has begun in Scotland
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The silencing of Stephen Daisley has nagged away at journalism in Scotland for months. His employer, STV, holds the ITV licences for central and northern Scotland, and is staying very quiet. The Scottish National Party rolls around like a drunk who has won a bar fight. Its politicians and its claque of Twitter trolls celebrate their power to bully and tell direct lies about the journalist they have humiliated. The BBC endorses them. The National Union of Journalists supports them. Everyone behaves as if they are living in a one-party state.

Not a dictatorship with men in uniforms marching down the street. But a democratic one-party state like Scotland has become and England and Wales will soon be: a state where it is simply impossible to imagine the ruling party losing power. Everything changes once that prospect is glimpsed. Opposition seems futile. Media organisations adapt themselves to the new order. The best editors tell their journalists to hold power to account. The cowards and the jobsworths suck up to the elite in the hope of gaining commercial privileges or enjoying the quiet life. Because it is regulated by the state, and because politicians know the public gets most of its news from television, you see the worst bullying and the most abject cravenness in broadcasting.

It takes so little to set it off. Censorship always contains an element of absurdity. What is absurd about the Daisley affair is that the SNP has pursued him with malicious vindictiveness for minor failures to go along with nationalist power. What is sinister is that, instead of protesting, STV, the National Union of Journalists and the supposedly neutral BBC have tugged their forelocks so hard, I fear they may soon not have a hair left on their empty heads

Stephen Daisley was STV’s digital politics and comment editor. As well as commissioning news coverage, his managers wanted him to submit online opinion pieces. These could include his personal views, as Ofcom rules do not cover written opinion. STV was trying to turn itself into a multi-media platform, in other words, like just about every other media organisation. It would be a regulated TV station and an unregulated online newspaper at the same time.

I accept that seeing a TV journalist behave like a print journalist might surprise someone brought up in Britain’s pre-Internet broadcast culture. But Daisley was hardly a shock jock. He proved a stylish and independent columnist. He damned the right for its dislike of immigrants and refugees and the left (including the SNP left) for its alliances with Islamists and anti-Semites. Daisley was sceptical about the SNP’s promises, but gave Nicola Sturgeon credit when he felt it due. She was ‘a tribal Nationalist, to be sure,’ he declared, at one point ‘but one at ease with other points of view’.

He soon discovered Sturgeon was nothing of the sort. Daisley had asked hard questions about Scottish independence. He had said the SNP was ‘expert at mining grievance from even the most innocuous act or statement’. The SNP proved him right by making Daisley’s innocuous freedom of speech its grievance.

I want to emphasise that the SNP assault began before it charged Daisley with a journalistic crime that was so overblown it was no crime at all. In the spring, John Nicolson, a former BBC journalist in the tradition of David Icke and Paul Mason, and member of the Commons Media Committee, and his fellow nationalist MP, Pete Wishart, who if anything is even more vicious, went to a reception STV chief executive Rob Woodward was holding for MPs. It was supposed to be the usual corporate fluff. But they turned the event into a prosecution of STV’s digital politics coverage in general and Daisley in particular.

The decision to allow Daisley to express his point of view was evidence of an anti-SNP agenda that ran through the whole of STV, they said. It was a disingenuous tactic. Daisley’s opinions were no one’s but his own, and were independent of party. But like Trump with the liberal media, the Tory right with the BBC, and the Corbynites with just about everyone, Scottish nationalists keep their supporters in line by assuring them that they are victims of a vast and mendacious media conspiracy that brainwashes the masses who would otherwise support them.

Nicolson and Wishart targeted Daisley on Twitter, and whipped up the online ‘cybernats’ to search for anything that might discredit him. In July, they found a pitiful piece of evidence for the prosecution: a tweet sent by Daisley from his own account recommending readers interested in politics follow various online satirists.

If you're not following these people, you're doing it wrong: @PaulFrame85 @HelenMilburn @twlldun @trewloy @BrianSpanner1 @LyraMcKee @gsoh31

— (((StephenDaisley))) (@JournoStephen) July 22, 2016

The SNP seized on the fact that, among his recommendations, Daisley had endorsed one ‘Brian Spanner’ the pseudonym for a sweary and often very funny Unionist who specialises in lampooning the Nats by pointing out the chasm between the ‘civic’ nationalist face they present in London TV studios and the more classical nationalist behaviour of some of their members and politicians back home.

The SNP absolutely loathes him. Its politicians are not used to being mocked. Uniquely in the free world, Scottish artists and comics think they become true edgy radicals when they fawn before the state and pillory the opposition, rather than the other way round. Nicolson, Wishart and their online helpers put together a selection of nasty tweets ‘Spanner’ had produced about Scottish female politicians. They claimed he was a misogynist – he isn’t by the way; JK Rowling would not be Spanner’s friend if he were. Then they claimed Daisley was a misogynist for suggesting people follow Spanner. Then they claimed that STV was misogynist for officially endorsing Daisley’s recommendation, even though Daisley had not tweeted on the STV’s professional account.

It was insane, but anyone who has seen a Twitter storm knows that sanity is the first thing to be blown away. Daisley was told he could no longer be online political editor and write comment pieces. He must shut up or lose his job. In short, they shut him up.

‘At no point have the SNP or any of its parliamentarians asked for Mr Daisley to stop writing, and any suggestion otherwise is completely untrue,’ said an SNP spokesman when the story broke. Daisley’s gagging was ‘an editorial decision,’ which was ‘entirely – and rightly – a matter for STV’. Let me assume, for the sake of politeness, that SNP spokesman was an idiot. For it is more polite than calling him a liar, who knew very well that Wishart and Nicolson had been trying to silence Daisley for months. Wishart himself admitted on Twitter that he had complained about Daisley’s ‘crap’ journalism to STV.

The affair would matter less if the normal checks of a free society against an overmighty state had kicked in. None did. The National Union of Journalists ought to have made a stand. But the Scottish NUJ is controlled by apologists for the nationalist government rather than defenders of freedom of the press. Without speaking to Daisley, Scotland’s NUJ organiser Paul Holleran told reporters: ‘I would be astonished if STV bowed to any pressure and introduced censorship in the newsroom,’ even though STV had done just that. Article One of the NUJ’s code of conduct says a journalist must ‘at all times uphold and defend the principle of media freedom’.

So deferential is it to nationalism, the NUJ is prepared to ignore its own rules. The BBC is under pressure from the SNP to tell its viewers they are not a part of Britain by producing a Scottish version of the Six o’Clock News. Almost two thirds of Scottish viewers are against it, but the SNP wants to ignore public opinion. Indeed, only a few months ago, John Nicolson persuaded the Commons Culture Committee to recommend overriding the wishes of the voters and the BBC.

Given its experience of state pressure, surely BBC Scotland should have been able to say why press freedom mattered. Instead, BBC Scotland broke every ethical guideline it had so it could damn Daisley and please the Nats.

First up on its programme discussing the case was Eamonn O’Neill, an academic. He assured the public that they had no need to worry. The Daisley affair was an ‘incestuous, inside the media bubble’ story of no concern to anyone. He did not know Stephen Daisley and had not ‘read his stuff’. But despite his self-confessed ignorance, he was happy to come down on the side of the SNP. Daisley had ‘crossed the line’ between editing and expressing his opinions, he said. (The learned academic apparently did not know that Ofcom rules did not cover Daisley’s online comment pieces). And in any case, John Nicolson had said ‘there was no pressure applied anywhere’, so that must be true, even though it wasn’t.

For balance, BBC Scotland turned to Channel 4 hack Stuart Cosgrove, who bravely, fiercely and independently also whitewashed Nicolson by repeating his demonstrably false claim that Daisley had used the STV Twitter account to tweet offensive opinions.

No one spoke to Daisley. No one went through the publicly available record to show how the SNP had applied the screws. No one applied the standards the BBC insists in its editorial guidelines it should always follow. (‘We must do all we can to ensure that controversial subjects are treated with due impartiality in all our output,’ the BBC says at one point.)

But then the BBC, NUJ, Wishart and Nicolson know that Daisley cannot complain or he will lose his job. His editors have silenced him, and they can rely on the corporate power of the STV hierarchy to ensure they are never challenged.

How they revel in it. The other day, I had enough of Nicolson’s bragging. I don’t like swaggering politicians at the best of times, but there is something particularly repellent about them when they are former journalists.

Nicolson announced on Twitter earlier this month:

You will notice that at no point could Nicolson bring himself to withdraw a false claim, even when the evidence was in front of his eyes. You will note too that it was left to outsiders to do what STV would not do, and defend the freedom of STV journalists. It is hard being an editor. You have to respond when your journalists make mistakes. But if you do not defend your journalists when they are in the right, then you become a figure of ridicule, first to your reporters and eventually to your readers and viewers too. By failing to defend Daisley, STV’s bosses have shown themselves to be unworthy of their senior positions. Everyone in Scottish journalism suspects they are in the SNP’s pockets, as Buzzfeed showed last week when it ran a story headlined ‘STV Accused Of 'SNP Love-In' For Hosting A Welcome Event For Its Party Conference’.

As I said earlier, get used to it. New technologies allow politicians to work with trolls to shut up journalists who break the party line. One-party dominance – the SNP in Scotland, the Tories in England – means the worst editors and broadcasters will do as they are told rather than risk a fight with elites who look as if they will stay in power forever. The case of Stephen Daisley may seem a small affair, but it's a signpost to our future.