Talking on Facebook is like having a conversation in a busy cafe. You have a reasonable expectation of privacy, if you’re an ordinary person talking quietly to a friend, but of course you can be overheard – and if you’re a political candidate for a non-Tory party and the person at the next table works for the Telegraph and you’re making [expletive deleted] comments that the Telegraph thinks they can use…
Lyall Duff is standing for election on 3rd May for the SNP in North Lanarkshire. Duff made the comments in January and February that the Telegraph chose to report today, so the timing is politically motivated: the SNP have the choice of backing Duff or sacking him, but it’s too late for them to invite him to stand down and let them find another candidate. If you are a candidate running for election it is sensible, to say the least, to make sure that your social media accounts say nothing that you would not wish to see quoted in the newspaper of your worst enemy.
(I try to remember to check my Facebook privacy settings at least once every six months. The last time was two days ago, when this article about creepy stalkers using Facebook data reminded me.)
The Facebook post that the Telegraph seem to find most disturbing is also the only one they quote in full. On 19th January, Lyall Duff apparently FB’d:
“What did these two ladies expect when they chose that career 30-plus years ago? Would they join the army as conscientious objectors, work in an abatior (sic) as animal lovers?”
“Sack the money-grabbing old witches and make them pay back every penny they earned in disgust going their career choice and on they way out of the hospital introduce them to hand washing and show them what a mop and bucket look like.”
Duff refers to Mary Doogan and Concepta Wood, midwives working at Southern General Hospital in Glasgow, who did not wish to have to care for patients who had had an abortion. They took their employers to court in order to avoid doing their share of the work on a busy ward, citing their Catholic faith as justification – could one of my Christian readers cite chapter & verse for where exactly Jesus says “Thou shalt not care for the sick or help out busy colleagues, in order to show thy moral superiority”? – and rightly they lost their case.
I cannot support Duff calling them “old witches” (typical SNP sexism) nor do I care for his call to have them “pay back every penny they earned”. But he’s basically right. Doogan and Wood weren’t being asked to perform abortions. They would have had a legally protected right to refuse that. They were being asked to do their jobs – carry out their calling by carinmg for patients. It was none of their business whether their patients were in hospital because they’d had an abortion, a miscarriage, or a baby: if they thought it was their business, they should never have become midwives; they should have gone into some other line of work.
[Update: the Scotsman have picked up the Telegraph's story, and very shamefully, Tom Peterkin, their "political editor" whatever that means on the Scotsman now, has simply repeated without fact-checking the Telegraph's central pro-life lie in the first paragraph of his churnalistic version.]
Not quoted in full, and so less clear exactly what Duff was getting at or in what context he said these things: In another post in early February, he
launched a diatribe littered with four-letter words against Fred Goodwin and said the former RBS chief executive and his family should be thrown onto the streets.
That’s strong language, but far from being at risk of homelessness, Fred Goodwin was in early February helping his children dodge inheritance tax with a house-buying spree.
The only comment the Telegraph quote (again, very selectively!) that strikes me as something worthy of censure is:
On February 24, he said RBS branch staff were “headless chickens” selling rubbish to their customers. “Burn them,” he urged before concluding they are “Scotland’s shame”.
RBS staff are mostly just ordinary Scots doing a job – their firm may be a disgrace to the name of Scotland, but the branch staff aren’t to blame for their employers’ banking policies. Again without context, and without the quote in full, it is outright impossible to tell exactly what Duff meant – but it does sound like this post was something a candidate for election ought to have thought better of posting, even if it was in context a threat as unserious as a call to blow Robin Hood Airport skyhigh. Let’s suppose, though, that this was exactly as bad as it sounds when the Telegraph quote it.
What are the Christian men who are quoted in the article concerned about? A call to “Burn them”? A threat to make Fred Goodwin’s family homeless?
No. Peter Kearney, spokesman for the Catholic Church, said:
“What is most disturbing with these comments are that they display a bigotry which indicate a deep seated intolerance of others. We assume, as regards the SNP, it is his political career that is over, for the Nationalists cannot afford to endanger their honeymoon relationship with the Catholic and pro-life communities.”
So the official position of the Catholic Church is that you can threaten bank staff, but don’t criticise a claimed right to refuse to care for the sick.
Mark Griffin, a Labour MSP for Central Scotland, said more ambiguously “It is probably the most disgusting abuse ever levelled by a mainstream candidate in Scotland. The SNP must expel this man from their party today and they should apologise for recommending him for public office. They must answer very serious questions about why he was allowed to stand in the first place.”
Really, Mark? The most disgusting abuse? How about Bill Walker’s comments about gay marriage? Or Allan Wilson, Labour MSP for Cunninghame North, who called talks between the SNP and the Greens “attempted rape“? Or, only two years ago, Stuart MacLennan, a Labour candidate, for his offensive comments about “chavs” and “ugly old boots”? Or Bill Aitken, then shadow minister for community safety, who asked if a rape victim was a prostitute?
Frank Roy, the Labour MP for Motherwell and Wishaw, seems to have been the only one to make a sensible comment:
“Staff working in the bank branches are not responsible for the mistakes of Fred Goodwin and should not be threatened with any kind of attack, let alone being burned down.”
It doesn’t seem like Lyall Duff had much sense, though. When the Daily Telegraph called him last night to let him know they were going to explode his Facebook comments as big news as part of their war on women’s healthcare, Duff apparently said:
he “cannot remember” making the comments but could not explain why they had been posted on a Facebook account with his name. Pressed whether he had made the remarks, he said: “I’ve just no comment on that, no comment at all.”
I have to admit: that doesn’t sound like someone with the capacity to think on his feet and it doesn’t sound like Duff had realised that his Facebook page wasn’t secure. While I think it would be wrong for the SNP to suspend him for his comments about the midwives who wanted to avoid doing their jobs, I can see why they’d be fairly annoyed with him for not thinking carefully about how he was expressing himself on the notoriously-insecure Facebook site.
The SNP’s official line is:
“Mr Duff has been suspended from membership of the SNP pending a full investigation into the comments attributed to him, which are wholly unacceptable.”
And that does disturb me. The SNP have problems enough with sexism in the ranks – their preference for selecting male candidates, etc. I want them to confirm that as a party they oppose the Tory and Telegraph attacks on women’s healthcare: we do not want a pro-life movement in the UK ever to gain the power to prevent women getting abortions. Andrew Lansley’s comments that he supports women having access to abortion only if there’s “good cause” were far more profoundly offensive and disturbing to me that any party candidate using “four-letter words and expletives” on Facebook.
Update: I actually think better of Lyall Duff than I did, after reading his apology. He apologises where I think he owes a “Sorry” (especially to the RBS branch staff) and acknowledges inappropriate use of language in the public sphere.
But. Duff attributes this outing of what he thought were private rants to a “Labour supporter” who hacked into his accounts. I wouldn’t say this was impossible – people often don’t think clearly about password protection – but one reason the Telegraph likely led with their Facebook quotes, if they have others, is because Facebook likely didn’t require hacking at all.
So Facebook, Orkut, G+ and so on all attempt to induce their users to maximize their self-disclosure and to tie their accounts to as many useful third-party information sources as possible.
You may have noticed that Facebook provides privacy controls, for those who are sufficiently worried about stranger danger to want some illusion of control. Unfortunately the vast majority of people have no idea how widely visible “show to all” really is, or that it might enable the users of apps like “Stalking Targets Around Me” to identify and track them. And it is not in Facebook’s commercial interest to promote the use of privacy controls. If someone is using the privacy controls with all the settings jacked up to 11, it becomes very unlikely that long-lost friends and relatives will be able to make contact with them through Facebook. Which is a lost advertising opportunity, and therefore detrimental to the revenue stream.
We are encouraged to over-share, for commercial reasons (just as we are encouraged to over-consume, but that’s an issue for another time). We are discouraged from imposing reasonable limits on access to our shared information, again, for commercial reasons. (And the mechanism employed for discouragement is a combination of benign neglect and ignorance on the one hand, with behavioural marketing on the other—”if you tell us where and when you went to school we can put you in touch with your long-lost high school friends!”)
Moreover we are actively discouraged from maintaining any separation of spheres of identity. Facebook was written by students, for students; one of its pernicious hallmarks is that it assumes that human beings possess but a single identity (which can be harvested by Facebook, needless to say).