I know Sarah Smith a bit, well enough to have had some reasonably long chats when we’ve caught up over the years. Modest, dry and likeable, she is also smart, thoughtful, alive to nuance and aware of what she doesn’t know.
This is what makes for good journalists and good journalism: the willingness to interrogate complex issues with an open mind, to speak to participants and experts from all sides, to weigh the matter at hand and then attempt to bring coherence and insight to what are often chaotic, hotly disputed and misrepresented “facts”.
Smith is leaving her post as the BBC’s Scotland editor after being appointed North American editor, and has departed with a lament at the way some in Scotland treated her. Because her father is the late Labour leader John Smith, she says, the critics assume her politics are the same as his: in other words, unionist.
People — and here I’m going to take a crazy leap and guess they were mainly male Yes voters — would “roll their car windows down as they drive past me in the street to ask me ‘what f***ing lies you’re going to be telling on TV tonight, you f***ing lying bitch’,” she said. She stopped tweeting because this “vitriolic attention” became routine and, she said, that was “shit I can live without”.
This kind of public, street-level abuse is more commonly directed at hacks like Sarah, who are on TV and therefore easily recognisable. Those of us who prefer to type words from behind a computer screen and, say, a line drawing that might be mistaken for Philip Seymour Hoffman, can walk the pavement relatively freely. But we still draw our share of rage and fire.
Social media is a minefield, and more mine than field. In the early days I used to engage widely and freely on Twitter with people I didn’t know, happy to discuss my articles, hear alternative views and quite often have my mistakes pointed out. In a sense, it made one sharper and more accountable. Then came the 2014 independence referendum and all that was lost.
I still shudder when I think back to the sheer scale of the vitriol and abuse that was unleashed then. Journalism isn’t easy to do well and, like everyone else in every other job, no one gets it right every time — God knows, I’ve spent my share of time hiding behind the sofa — but this was abuse that deserved its own weather warning. It was hysterical, profane and highly personal; the worst characteristics and intentions were ascribed to you. Strangers offered to meet you in car parks for a fight — sometimes they were even men.
In the face of all this and its relentlessness over so many months, it took a certain courage to plough on and be true to yourself. As a Union-supporting commentator, as I then was, I wasn’t just dealing with Alex Salmond and his swaggering bully-boy outfit, but the zealots swarming around the edges. Banners were being ripped down, cars scratched, people spat at in the street. Although temperatures have cooled a bit since 2014 the ill-temper remains and often flares up again. I don’t just blame the Yes side for this. When I’ve written positively about Nicola Sturgeon I’ve taken equally unpleasant abuse from the unionist side. Women on every side and none, whether Sarah Smith or the First Minister, get it far, far worse.
We can all pretend it doesn’t hurt, but it does. It ruins days, weeks, confidence. It reduces the space available to those of us who genuinely want to consider issues from first principles, to treat politicians fairly and to engage broadly. Like many journalists and politicians I now largely avoid Twitter, partly for the good of my mental health, but also because it’s simply dreadful these days. Its bile has spun beyond the online sphere, too. Good politicians have as healthy a disdain for the nonsense produced by their own side as they have for the opposition’s, which is why in 2019 Boris Johnson forced out the tranche of decent, measured Tory MPs who could see through the Brexit bull, and through him, and were willing to say so. Look at what’s left.
When you consider a journalist and see him or her as a one-dimensional representative of a fixed position, you misunderstand and misrepresent them. Most of them, anyway. We all have our views but hacks tend to be considerably less starry-eyed about characters and causes than the general population — it’s hard not to be when you’re exposed to the wiring on a daily basis.
It’s often been said that journalism is a trade rather than a profession but, done well, it is also a disposition and a temperament, a way of being in the world. If you aren’t curious, if you aren’t uncertain, if you don’t doubt yourself and if you aren’t ever willing to change your mind, then you’re probably not going to be much good at it. Still, you’ll probably excel on Twitter.