Cast your mind back to the independence referendum and the impact of social media on the campaign. Yes dominated online media. It was so one-sided that Unionists coined a term designed to demonise their online opponents. The term was ‘Cybernat’.
Claims of online ‘Cybernat’ abuse directed at Unionist supporters peppered media coverage throughout of the referendum. Online criticism of Unionists, no matter how justified, was regularly manipulated into an anti-indy headline. If criticism involved female Unionists and could be re-packaged as misogynistic, then all the better.
Playing the anti-women card was a regular theme from the No campaign and its media supporters. It was almost impossible for the Yes campaign to offer criticism of high-profile female Unionists for fear of being accused of misogyny.
Even satire, as Newsnet Scotland found out, was strictly off limits.
When Newsnet published its final Duggy Dug animation video, ‘The No Nightmare’ which contained the ‘Vermin in Ermine’ phrase coined by former Labour MP John [now Lord] Prescott, the No campaign contorted it, claiming it was an attack on women.
A spokesman for Better Together said: "This is yet another absolutely disgraceful attack on a woman by a nationalist group."
Better Together communications director Rob Shorthouse accused Newsnet Scotland of actually going after women. In a tweet the official said: "So @NewsnetScotland are the latest Nat group to go after women - calling Johann Lamont 'vermin' in their latest promo."
Two women became synonymous with the ‘Cybernat abuse’ line of attack - JK Rowling and Clare Lally.
Ms Lally is now nothing more than a distant memory. Her ten minutes of fame have come and gone. Rowling on the other hand has maintained her political profile, due in no small part to her international celebrity as author of the Harry Potter books.
Rowling has become a bit of an online cause célèbre for Unionists. She hit the political headlines again recently when she threatened to take legal action against a Glasgow MP.
I came late to the online row between Natalie McGarry and JK Rowling. The author and the MP engaged in a war of words following a tweet from McGarry late last month. The exchange can be seen below.
It looked like the usual disagreements you find everywhere on twitter and I didn’t pay much attention. However things escalated when, in another tweet from the author, Rowling threatened the MP with legal action.
What was it all about?
In between these two tweets were scores from other people which made reference to a third party called Brian Spanner. So many references to a ‘Brian Spanner’ twitter account were peppering my timeline that I decided to take a closer look.
Off The Scale
Now twitter is full of people who post inappropriate messages. Some contain language that might be diplomatically described as less than wholesome; ‘industrial’ is the common euphemism. I myself have posted the odd message containing a swear word when describing politicians or media commentators. But the poster known as Brian Spanner was way off the scale.
His tweets weren’t just inappropriate, many were utterly disgusting, with references to female genital mutilation and the menopause. Targets of this odious individual included actress and comedian Elaine C. Smith, breast cancer surgeon and SNP MP Philippa Whitford, SNP MP Mhairi Black and SNP MSP Joan McAlpine.
Below are some examples of the kind of messages ‘Spanner’ had posted.
The ‘Brian Spanner’ twitter account is a litany of disgusting and vulgar anti-women abuse and, as seen above, anti-Irish xenophobia. But where did JK Rowling fit into this?
Rowling and Spanner
McGarry’s allegation that the internationally acclaimed author “defends abusive misogynist trolls” was a reference to Rowling’s online interaction with Brian Spanner. But was there any evidence to support McGarry’s claim? This is where things got very interesting.
You’d think that an internationally renowned female author who writes children’s books would have absolutely nothing to do with such a twitter account. But you’d be wrong. It turned out that JK Rowling had what might be termed a rather chummy online relationship with Spanner. Rowling not only followed Spanner but had engaged the individual directly in playful light-hearted chat.
Analysis of JK Rowling’s twitter account from other bloggers suggested the author had engaged either directly or indirectly with Spanner nearly 200 times, sometimes responding directly to tweets.
Journalists and other Unionists
The more I looked into Rowling’s interaction with this individual, the more bizarre it got. For example, not widely known was Rowling's tweets and the role played by a couple of pro-Union journalists in a recent bizarre T-shirt stunt.
In December last year images of Alex Massie and David Torrance appeared on social media. Both were wearing T-shirts which bore the name of a little known nationalist fringe group. The journalists were poking fun at a group who call themselves The Scottish Resistance.
What few realised was that the T-shirts had actually been sold online by the person behind the ‘Brian Spanner’ twitter account. Spanner announced his T-shirt campaign in a tweet on 18th September last year, the anniversary of the independence referendum. All proceeds were to go to the Lumos charity - which was founded by JK Rowling.
Within minutes of ‘Spanner’ tweeting about his campaign, Rowling tweeted a pledge to purchase T-shirts for pro-Union journalists Alex Massie and Stephen Daisley, as well as Scottish Labour activist Duncan Hothersall. The T-shirt venture eventually netted £548.50 for Lumos. Rowling tweeted praise of ‘Spanner’ after he deposited the cheque.
Another interesting aspect of this increasingly bizarre story is the list of people who openly follow the misogynist ‘Spanner’. It reads like a Who’s Who of Scottish Unionism.
Below is an extract from the Scot goes Pop blog written by James Kelly:
Why does Spanner - an abusive troll who regularly uses the C-word, and who has a relatively modest 4,622 followers on Twitter - boast such a large number of the unionist establishment (especially the journalistic unionist establishment) among his followers?
Examples: Blair McDougall, J K Rowling (who STILL follows him!), Alex Massie, John McTernan, Kenny Farquharson, Iain Martin, Chris Deerin, Stephen Daisley, David Torrance, Kevin Schofield, Alan Roden, Iain Harrison, Ruth Davidson MSP, Harry Cole, Nick Cohen, Gemma Doyle, Melanie Ward, Tom Greatrex, Stephen Hammond MP, Paul Martin MSP, Alex Fergusson MSP, Mike Crockart, Charlotte Wace (Scottish Mail on Sunday), Tom Martin (Scottish Daily Express), Lord Lewis Moonie, Maggie Vaughan (Alistair Darling's spouse), Murdo Fraser MSP, Paul Sinclair, Rob Shorthouse, Catherine Stihler MEP, Ben Borland (Scottish Sunday Express), Ian Smart, Ian Murray MP, and yes, Euan McColm.
Are they ALL fans of deeply offensive misogynistic trolling and the C-word?
Why would the great-and-good of Scottish Unionism follow this kind of individual at all? Some or all would surely have been exposed to ‘Spanner’s’ abuse of women. At least one Tory MSP thought the matter so funny that he posted the following tweet.
But what possible reason was there for high-profile political leaders, commentators and journalists to be following an obscure and highly abusive twitter account? The ‘Spanner’ twitter account had fewer followers than my own modest account.
Had those journalists followed ‘Spanner’ in order to expose the abusive and disgusting ramblings of a misogynist then they would surely have done so. But they hadn’t. Indeed even after Rowling rather unwisely drew her own online relationship with Spanner to their attention, they still refused to headline the glaringly obvious story.
What’s more bizarre is that the story had international appeal. JK Rowling is a hero, or heroine, to many millions of fans around the globe. She has over six million followers online. Many of these will be impressionable youngsters. How many may have inadvertently viewed ‘Brian Spanner’s’ disgusting filth?
Instead of highlighting Rowling’s exchanges with ‘Spanner’, the media in Scotland effectively erased it from their coverage of the author’s row with MP Natalie McGarry. The Herald newspaper covered the Rowling/McGarry spat without revealing the disgusting tweets that lie at the centre of the row.
An online article on the BBC Scotland website published in January omitted any mention of Rowling’s online contact with ‘Spanner’, or his abuse, save for a line at the end, which read:
‘The Brian Spanner account is one of the 281 followed on Twitter by Ms Rowling, who has more than 6.6 million followers.’
Rowling has done more than just follow ‘Spanner’. She has engaged with him, praised him and shared jokes with him. The BBC Scotland article contained more information on Natalie McGarry’s recent suspension from the SNP on an unrelated and contested matter, than it did about Rowling’s interaction with a disgusting individual.
The refusal of the BBC to draw attention to Rowling’s online interaction with ‘Spanner’ had of course nothing to do with the fact that the corporation plans to adapt three of her novels for TV.
Instead of highlighting the abusive twitter account, the Scottish media seemed intent on turning a blind eye. There were even suggestions that some journalists themselves already knew who ‘Spanner’ really was. Indeed that they have always known.
I don’t know who is behind the ‘Brian Spanner’ twitter account. In fact the identity of the person isn't that important. What I do know is that whoever it is posts disgusting and disturbing filth about women. I know the person is a Unionist and boasts some of the most powerful, rich and influential Scottish Unionists amongst his followers. I know some of them are professional journalists and some politicians. I know that some of these powerful and influential people think it appropriate to interact with and indulge ‘Brian Spanner’.
On February 17th the story re-surfaced when Natalie McGarry posted an apology on twitter.
The ‘screen grab’ was a reference to an image posted by McGarry during her initial exchanges with Rowling back in January which gave a misleading chronology of some exchanges between Rowling and Spanner.
There is no evidence that JK Rowling has ever seen any of Brian Spanner's disgusting tweets, but by threatening Natalie McGarry with legal action and thus drawing attention to her own exchanges with him, the author handed the Scottish media a headline story on a plate. A cursory investigation would have revealed the extent of Spanner’s disgusting misogyny and Rowling’s online interaction with the individual. The story has been passed up.
JK Rowling is reputedly a billionaire due to the success of her Harry Potter character. She once donated one million pounds to the Labour party and also handed a similar sum to the pro-Union Better Together campaign during the referendum. She is an individual who commands newspaper headlines for the most banal of reasons.
Media interest in Rowling doesn’t apparently stretch to her twitter exchanges with Brian Spanner. Why? Your guess is a good as mine.
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