Writer, Journalist and Broadcaster

Cybernats – a Scottish political phenomenon

It was, I think, the noble Lord Foulkes who coined the memorable term ‘cybernats’. The Scotsman’s David Maddox likened them to an army who ‘launch daily, sustained attacks on journalists, politicians and anybody else perceived to stand in the way of their cherished aim of independence, or who raises even the mildest criticism of Alex Salmond or the SNP’.
     And so it proves with Scotland on Sunday’s serialisation of my new biography of the First Minister. To be fair, the comments quoted below attached themselves to a ‘news’ take on an excerpt from the book, which – as news stories often do – dispensed with important context, although it did contain the main point of the wider piece, that Alex Salmond can be aggressive and treat his staff badly.
     Even at 1 a.m. this morning, barely half an hour after the stories appeared online, the cybernats got to work. Initially, these were reasonable prosaic. ‘Scottish republic’ reckoned that all ‘political leaders lose their temper. I don’t want a shrinking violet breaking up the union.’Another posting, by ‘samcoldstream’, raised the inevitable Andrew Rawnsley/Gordon Brown analogy, which is more flattering to yours truly than the First Minister. ‘We forget that politicians do not have feet of clay,’ he added thoughtfully. ‘Every Prime Minister since the War, including Churchill, Eden, MacMillan [sic], and even the meek and timid Atlee [sic], could burst into foul mouthed rages.’ I suspect samcoldstream hasn’t read much post-war political biography. Churchill could explode, certainly, as could Eden, but Macmillan was caustic rather than aggressive, and Attlee blunt rather than bullying.
     ‘Shawfield Urchin’ then offered a biography of Iain Gray: ‘He came, he saw then he went away again, without anyone realising he had ever been here in the first place.’ Not bad, although I suspect a publisher would require a bit of padding. Then the personal abuse began. ‘Calimero’, who has attacked me in the past without ever revealing his or her identity, concluded that ‘from the Tory supporting [sic] David Torrance this amounts to a tour de force effort for his first novel [sic]’. ‘I am absolutely certain it will fly off the shelves of the odd airport lounge – never to be read,’ he or she adds. ‘If this “exclusive extract” is anything to go by I think I’ll stick to the Beano.'
     Not all comments were hostile. The bizarrely-named ‘Your Move’ had a slightly different take, believing that ‘Salmond’s many frustrations are absolutely understandable’. ‘The quality of his elected members is lamentable, the quality of his support is beneath contempt, particularly the online variety,’ he or she added. ‘He has no hope of gaining Scottish Independence, his lifelong aspiration and he is going to be out on his bahookey next May.’ Bahookey? Definitions on a postcard please.
     ‘Cane Corso Italiano’, meanwhile, pointed out that none ‘of the Salmond mob have leapt to the defence of the Great Leader, or, even attempted to deny it’. Generously he adds: ‘this biography has the ring of truth in these revelations. I expect this is just the tip of a Salmond proportioned iceberg.’ ‘Your Move’ concurred: ‘If this story is false, Salmond should sue the author, David Torrance, Tom Peterkin above and the SOS. Or, do the typically Salmond thing and bluster about doing something; issue a SNP type Fatwa that will terrify those responsible, something.’ Dear reader, I have yet to receive a Fatwa.
     ‘Linda’ then revived the cybernat abuse. ‘If this is the most damaging tittle tattle SoS or David Torrance can dig up’, she wrote, ‘then Alex Salmond’s position as Scotland’s outstanding politician is secure for years to come.’ Likewise, ‘Kinghobe’ said the article was ‘just a load of made up bull, a sad attempt to taint Alex Salmond’s leadership’. He also hoped the ‘biography’ (which for some reason he puts in inverted commas) ‘does rubbish as far as sales go’. I’m guilty, apparently, of concocting a ‘weirdo interpretation’ that amounts to a ‘load of lowbrow kak’. ‘[S]ome unofficial “biographer” has been left to make up stuff because the information and cooperation is lacking.’ Another commenter, ‘wdy’, is more succinct: ‘What a load of rubbish…Absolute nonsense. Made up rubbish.’
     Finally, there was some sanity – relatively speaking – from ‘Brianwci’. ‘The pressure of all leaders is incredible, rage allows sanity to be maintained. It’s a safety valve,’ he muses. ‘In Salmond’s case his people skills clearly outweight [sic] his minuses. That combined with his political plusses makes him a major asset to Scotland and the SNP…Salmond is [a] very bright, great political strategist but more importantly he can connect with the voters. I think we can forgive him his safety valve tantrums, though we wouldn’t expect the BritNats to do so.’
     Then the charming ‘Fifi la Bonbon’ came to my defence. ‘Mr Torrance is a long established, serious and distinguished writer who has published books on Margaret Thatcher, Harold MacMillan [sic], and the Secretaries of State for Scotland, and this is just the latest of these. He doesn’t write hagiographies.’ Aw, shucks. She then offered a cybernat biography of Salmond: ‘Once upon a time, in a humble cottage in Linlithgow, the Greatest Living Scotsman was born. A strange golden light shone out of his nappy, bathing the faces of his proud parents with a warm glow…’ I fear I might have competition.
     Now for the serious bit. Back in September 2008, the political journalist Douglas Fraser offered this parting shot on his Herald blog:

These online discussion forums have taught me quite a bit – rarely about politics, but much more about the disturbing results you get from the interplay of anonymity, group psychology and bullying. This is not unique to The Herald’s website, or to Scottish politics, but as the content and tone of this conversation represents a daily injection of poison into the well of Scottish public life, we are all worse off for it.

Too true. I don’t mind people criticising what I write, but that comes with certain qualifications. Criticism, particularly of a book that is the result of more than a year of (I hope) serious research, ought to at least be considered. Dismissing my conclusions on Salmond’s character as ‘made up’ or ‘tittle tattle’ just isn’t good enough; critics need to present proof that it is so, which tellingly none of them have. They should also do so – particularly if they resort to abuse – under their real names. I offer my thoughts as ‘David Torrance’; they should offer theirs without the cloak of anonymity.


9 Responses to Cybernats – a Scottish political phenomenon

  1. Tom Martin says:

    You shouldn’t take it personally, David. The people who post messages on that site are looking for any excuse to launch into childish nationalist v. unionist abuse. I thought it was a reasonable article by the Scotsman’s standards, but I just knew what I would see if I scrolled down below.

    You can’t deny, though, that there is an anti-SNP bias in the Scotsman, The Herald and in other papers (and the BBC). That is the root cause of their anger and frustration, not that that justifies their behaviour. As long as the likes of David Maddox keep regurgitating Labour press releases, I can’t see the situation changing.

    Good luck with the book!

  2. John Boettcher says:

    I’ll certainly be buying your book; your Thatcher biography was excellent. And I’m a fully paid-up Scots Nat!


  3. David, you seem to have missed the equally vicious non-nationalist posts to the story in SOS. The common theme of comments on newspaper websites appears to be the gutter nastiness of the commenters. It’s less pervasive but still noticeable on Brian Taylor’s blog, too – the moderation control calms it a little but can’t remove it.


  4. Kirk J. Torrance says:

    Hey fellow Torrance,

    Ignore the noise – it either comes from unimaginative idiots or mischievous busybodies trying to give “Nats” a bad name.

    Take a leaf out of Seth Godin’s book: http://bit.ly/bICuZV

  5. Steven Huntington says:

    I’d like to ditto John Boettcher’s comments (except the Scots Nat part!). I saw a copy of the Salmond biography in a Charing Cross Road bookstore, and it’s now on my Christmas list.

    The vitriol daily spewed on these comments sections is so viciously histrionic as to be amusing. I’m a fierce unionist but splenetic personal attacks have always seemed self-defeating to me. Actually I think cybernats are unique, as most anonymous comments tend to be nihilistically cynical about everything, whereas cybernats are fawning towards Salmond.


  6. Kevin Donnelly says:

    The problem appears largely to be how the media reports on the SNP: if a negative headline is used against the SNP, then that party’s supporters will assume you are in agreement. By and large however, those posts appear more critical of the newspaper concerned than of your truely.

    On the other hand, I suppose anyone who seeks publicity (however honourably) must expect to face detractors even hostile ones. It was after all an unauthorised biography, so I supposed criticism, even ridiculous criticism comes with the territory.

    Indeed, even in your own blog you seem to praise and thank those who have been kind to your book, even when they are quite obviously attacking the SNP and personally attacking Salmond, the subject of your book.

    “Cybernat” is in my view, a facile description and quite clearly used in a negative sense to smear all those who do not support the unionist parties. It is a propaganda tool which perhaps you might consider abandoning in future blogs?

  7. David Torrance says:

    You make several reasonable points. You’ll be glad to hear that I decided to abandon the term after writing this piece!

  8. Johm Brose says:

    Cybernats are anonymous so who knows if they belong to the SNP. Often I have concluded that some supposed defence of the SNP and its leadership could only have been written by someone opposed because of its effect on the reader. The much used Jowly Eck and Fat Defender etc of course are clearly Unionist. Or are they?

  9. Morag Kerr says:

    OK, David, you get my real name out of courtesy. And by the way, I enjoyed your book (2011 edition) and thought it was a fair and interesting portrait. I would ask you to consider, however, why an ordinary person with an ordinary job would want to use their real name in a forum such as the Scotsman comments threads, even if they were posting something quite unexceptional?

    I do not understand why the Scotsman tolerates the bear pit that has been below most of its political articles for years now. The Herald summarily binned the lot some time ago. I read the threads for entertainment occasionally, but I cannot fathom why anyone would want to post there seriously. It’s nothing but a circle-jerk among a small number of people who seem to spend their entire lives on that activity.

    I would also take serious issue with the suggestion that the fault lies entirely, or even mainly, with the nationalist camp. They are at least equalled by the bitter, bilious and insulting unionist camp. The Fifi la Bonbon, whom you describe as “charming”, was one of the nastiest, most vicious posters it was ever my misfortune to encounter in these threads. She vanished in the run-up to the 2011 election, allegedly because she was in fact employed as a Labour party “researcher”, and was standing on the list for that party. Allegedly, she was one of those unexpectedly elected when the “big beasts” fell like ninepins, and is now an MSP. You can look elsewhere for confirmation of Miss la Bonbon’s real-life identity.

    Go figure. And by the way, here’s the “cybernat” reply. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-8KAUijtdHw If they label you, embrace it.

    There are places on the internet where one can read reasoned debate. The Scotsman comments threads are not one of them.

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