Sturgeon’s Intolerance of dissenting views is not entirely bad

Sturgeon’s Intolerance of dissenting views is not entirely bad

by Tom Gallagher
article from Wednesday 20, May, 2020

THANKS TO A VOTE by the Scottish parliament on 19 May, some transparency has been restored to the workings of the devolved administration. Severe curbs on freedom of information that were hastily introduced by Nicola Sturgeon early in this immense medical crisis have been quashed. Sooner rather than later information will be published that is likely to shed light on the much higher incidence of deaths in care homes in Scotland compared to the rest of the UK – and the failure of Scottish authorities to take seriously the outbreak of Covid-19 in February after overseas delegates at a conference held in in Edinburgh, swiftly infected many other people.

Criticisms about Sturgeon’s secretive and calculating approach to the crisis have accumulated. She has been depicted as an autocrat who hogs the limelight in daily crisis briefings with the media, gives little away, and seeks to transfer responsibility for failings elsewhere even though health matters are fully devolved to Scotland.

But the acute displeasure she displayed on Monday night over a broadcast by the BBC Scotland editor Sarah Smith, suggests that the worst fears about Sturgeon may be overblown. It turns out that she is pretty transparent after all – at least when it comes displaying her anger towards a journalist who challenges her preferred narrative.

When discussing Scottish Government plans to scale down the lockdown during a BBC News at Ten segment on 18 May Smith said it “has been obvious that Nicola Sturgeon has enjoyed the opportunity to set her own lockdown rules” rather than follow Westminster’s lead. This was a fairly anodyne observation compared with what Boris Johnson and his ministers have had to endure even from media sources normally sympathetic to the Conservatives. Sturgeon has invested huge energy in laying out a Scottish-focussed approach to Covid-19 and frequently driving home the point that by no means was she a subaltern of the senior government in London. But with bad news accumulating about her administration’s handling of the crisis, she was stung by the characterisation of her role put out across the whole of the UK in the BBC’s main news broadcast.

The First Minster lost no time in sending out a tweet to her 1.1 million followers in which she wrote:

‘Never in my entire political career have I “enjoyed” anything less than this. My heart breaks every day for all those who have lost loved ones to this virus.’ @nicolasturgeon

She then retweeted a clip of the comment report posted by Erik Geddes - head of media at the SNP - who called Smith’s remark “shameful”.

Overnight, the hapless BBC journalist was subject to a torrent of online vitriol from fellow nationalists. A very infrequent tweeter, on Tuesday the 19th Sarah Smith sent four tweets in quite rapid succession in which she wrote,

“I do not believe that Nicola Sturgeon is enjoying this crisis. I had meant to say on the ten o’clock news that she has “embraced” the opportunity to make a policy unique to Scotland. I said “enjoyed” by mistake. Not suggesting she is enjoying crisis but embracing devolution.”

Only a very short space of time elapsed before the First Minister responded: “I’ve made clear my view on this report. I’m not “enjoying” or “embracing” an “opportunity”. I’m just doing what I judge best in very difficult circumstances. That said, I understand the scrutiny that comes with it and accept Sarah’s clarification. For me, the matter is closed.”

Smith then followed up with a humiliating tweet: “For the avoidance of doubt, I am sorry that by mistake I said last night that Nicola Sturgeon was “enjoying the opportunity” to set a different policy.”

Sturgeon had not been libeled or misquoted by the BBC correspondent. She had offered an appraisal of her approach to the crisis which had been found not only inconvenient but offensive as bad news piled up. A politician who does not allow any follow-ups in her Q & A sessions with the media was offended, her numerous supporters were outraged but as quickly as the avalanche of denunciation flowed, it was stilled after what seemed like an act of submission from the chief public broadcaster.

It is hard to recall any similar gesture of contrition from the BBC in comparable historical moments such as the 1926 General Strike, World War II, or even the Falklands War. Image management is clearly seen by the First Minister as an important facet of her role even at the height of a crisis in which over 2,100 people in Scotland have so far died.

At least in her sub-conscious she must have known that a sharp rebuke for the journalist would result in a pile-on from followers whose behaviour has placed her in an awkward position more than once. But her indignation got the better of her and it was swiftly conveyed to one of those in charge of her media machine.

Smith’s broadcast would have been quickly forgotten if Sturgeon had issued an anodyne response or, better still, ignored it completely. This would have been the response of most heads of government in pluralist states who accept as a fact of life the existence of a sceptical or highly probing media. In a democracy where the SNP wields an exceptional degree of control, far beyond the remit of most ruling parties, Sturgeon has done us a small service by showing these are not her rules. 

She is sensitive to criticism and feels that a deferential media which is predictable in its reportage, is a key adjunct of her effectiveness as a ruler. She does not invite close inspection of her private life by the media which has been the subject of regular speculation in political circles

The existence of a claque of fanatical supporters who will not hear a word said against her is an unhealthy phenomenon which is not replicated in any other long-established democracy (with the exception of the United States). It is not yet clear how many of these individuals would be prepared to take their militancy beyond furious tweeting but their presence gives much cause for worry especially if polarisation increases in Scotland in times to come.

Sturgeon’s outburst which led to the hounding of a BBC journalist is illuminating because it shows how pronounced the autocratic features of the government’s operation has become. She therefore deserves some thanks for, by her intemperate reaction, alerting many of us to the limited extent criticism of the powerful is now permitted in an SNP-run Scotland. 

Tom Gallagher is a retired political scientist who divides his time between Cumbria and Scotland. His book on the SNP, Scotland Now: A Warning to the World was published in 2016 in paperback and on Kindle. His twitter account is @cultfree54


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