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.