Lyall Duff, Facebook, and the Telegraph

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.

Charles Stross writes:

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).

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15 Comments

Filed under Elections, Healthcare, Human Rights, Women

15 responses to “Lyall Duff, Facebook, and the Telegraph

  1. Not all gender imbalance is attributable to sexism. There are other factors at work. Not even enforcing a 50% quota would necessarily be reflected in the proportion of women actually elected.

    The facile resort to portraying women as life’s eternal victims is every bit as offensive as any other manifestation of sexism?

  2. Mr. Duff’s comments were clearly immoderate and ill-judged, and I can understand how one might infer sexism, too, but the Telegraph’s argument seems to be that they were sectarian, an extremely serious charge. It could be that Mr, Duff said other things not widely reported that would bear that interpretation, but is it not also possible that he is a foul-mouthed intolerant *liberal*?

    • but the Telegraph’s argument seems to be that they were sectarian, an extremely serious charge.

      I’m working on a post at this moment that rebuts the argument that Duff’s comments (as published) were sectarian. Should be online in an hour or so.

      It could be that Mr, Duff said other things not widely reported that would bear that interpretation

      One of the most exasperating things about this kind of “investigative journalism” is that we are not able to see the full context of what exactly Duff said. Duff’s Facebook profile is private. That doesn’t make it impossible to read it, as the Telegraph neatly demonstrate, but it does mean it can’t be accessed without a certain amount of effort which, frankly, I don’t feel I have any right to make. The Telegraph effectively eavesdropped on what Duff evidently thought were “private” conversations and stripmined them for the juicy bits. (For example, from what has been quoted, I gather Duff made comments about “the French” when he was watching the France-Scotland match at Murrayfield – ie it wasn’t a generic French-baiting comment, but a sports rant…) Duff can’t exactly go public without opening up his Facebook profile, which he evidently doesn’t wish to do. So what we’re left with is what the Telegraph made public. And all I can say is that from what they published, there’s no evidence of sectarianism.

      Mr. Duff’s comments were clearly immoderate and ill-judged

      Well, we can agree on that. Also, a loud warning to anyone who foolishly thought they had privacy on Facebook….

  3. Lots of interesting stuff here, although I have to disagree with your conclusion. I do think he should be expelled from the SNP for what he said about those midwives (and the other offensive comments he has made). I would personally have the midwives fired myself, I couldn’t be more pro-abortion and anti-forced-pregnancy than I am, but anyone running for public office should not use misogynist language, and he did so in his attack on them.

    I don’t care if folk are criticising anti-choice midwives, Sarah Palin or Margaret Thatcher. Noone should use sexism to criticise women. If you can’t find the language to criticise them for what they need criticising for, you shouldn’t be criticising them. This guy is a menace and he has shown that he is a menace, a total liability to the SNP; he has revealed his true colours in these comments, and I would, as a woman, hate to have him in my government (and yes you are dead on about all the other horrible comments by all the other horrible MSPs and MPs; I also think they should go!). For once I am in agreement with the Catholic Church, albeit for totally different reasons!

    Re your “typical SNP sexism” comment: couldn’t be further from my experience of the party (I am not a member of any political party, have just been around them a bit of late): I would say their sexism is probably on about the same level as the Scottish Green Party, i.e. it’s definitely there, but it’s not on the same level of, say, the Labour Party. With the caveat that all political parties, as with all formal organisations in our society, are sexist! But this is a topic you do tweet and write about so I do wonder how you have had this vastly different impression? Is it really just that you are in Edinburgh and I am in Glasgow and the parties are very different in each city? Interesting.

    • I don’t disagree with the SNP suspending (or expelling) Lyall Duff. (Not that it’s my call: not my party.) For a complicated mix of reasons relating to the language he used, his belief that a private Facebook profile is private and so he could say what he liked (er, DUH) and his really-not-very-smart reaction when the Telegraph phoned him to get his response to the news they’d got his comments and were going to publish. The guy is a liability in more ways than one.

      But I do think, given the really horrible comments made by the Catholc Church and the Telegraph – and the outright lies told about the midwives – the SNP need to stand up and say clearly that they support the court decision and the midwives were in the wrong. I think Labour should do so too – I wrote about this in a later post. (In fact, given the circumstances, I think Labour should take the lead – they’re the party benefiting by the Telegraph’s prolife campaign in this instance.)

      Re your “typical SNP sexism” comment: couldn’t be further from my experience of the party

      Well, my comment derives from their lack of women candidates. 20 men, 3 women – that’s Edinburgh. I haven’t looked into it nationwide, but there’s a similar discrepancy where I have looked. I’ve asked SNP representatives about this, and been told (more or less) that no, the party doesn’t have any structures to promote equal representation, and that they don’t agree with such structures as used by Labour and the Scottish Greens, because they select on merit.

      So what they’re saying is: the SNP, as a party,believes women are inferior to men. They select on merit: they have lots more men; they don’t see a problem with that and don’t intend to try fixing it, because they perceive men as just having more merit than women.

      That’s a fundamentally sexist view, and yeah, it does seem to be party wide. Which is not the case in Labour – you get individuals who are sexist, but I’ve not encountered this kind of universal “nope, we think men are just better than women” reaction from any other party. (Update: Well, except from the Tories. But I expect that from them and it’s not like I’d vote for them anyway.)

  4. So what they’re saying is: the SNP, as a party,believes women are inferior to men. They select on merit: they have lots more men; they don’t see a problem with that and don’t intend to try fixing it, because they perceive men as just having more merit than women.

    This is a fallacy. Your conclusion only holds if women candidates are disproportionately likely to fail to be selected. Another possible explanation is that significantly more men submit themselves for selection in the first place. That’s certainly the cause of the imbalance here in Glasgow. The reasons for that are worthy of examination, but “the SNP, as a party, believes women are inferior to men” isn’t really a serious starting point.

    • Colin: the SNP, as a party, believes women are inferior to men” isn’t really a serious starting point.

      Then let SNP defenders stop saying that the reason for the massive disproportion in men and women candidates for the local elections is “the SNP selects on merit”.

      I’m not making this up.

      Another possible explanation is that significantly more men submit themselves for selection in the first place.

      Or put another way: the SNP as a party makes no effort to make sure that women who are able to be candidates put themselves forward for selection, which is why the SNP as a party is doing so much worse than Labour – and no party does as well as the Greens. And an explanation for that is that consistently, when asked to defend the disproportion of men to women, SNP members react with “the SNP selects on merit”.

      • Peter A Bell

        The problem is not with the SNP saying that they select candidates on merit but with the rather silly inference that you insist on drawing from this perfectly uncontroversial statement. If it really did mean what you so foolishly claim then the SNP would have no female candidates at all.

        You seem quite incapable of grasping the plain truth that there are other factors at work here apart from the SNP’s selection policy. Why you choose to totally disregard the fact that significantly fewer women than men enter politics in the first place is for you to explain. A more or less completely even gender balance might more accurately reflect the reality of society as a whole, but it would necessarily be a gross distortion of the reality of political life.

        That the ideal would be to create a gender balance in political representation is not something anyone would seriously dispute. But there are differing views as to how this might best be achieved. And women are as divided on the issue as men. Some hold that quotas are the way. Others put more emphasis on addressing the societal causes of the imbalance. Both are perfectly valid arguments.

        But no rational person, male or female, disputes that candidates should always be selected on merit regardless of sex. To claim, as you do, that men fail for diverse and often complex reasons while women fail because of “sexism” is massively insulting to women. It portrays them as mere powerless ciphers entirely subject to the whims of men.

        Real equality entails an equal right to fail on ones own account.

        • “If it really did mean what you so foolishly claim then the SNP would have no female candidates at all.”

          In Edinburgh, the SNP is standing 3 women out of 23 candidates – both numerically and proportionally the party with the lowest number of women candidates. Wouldn’t take much for the SNP to have no women in the SNP Group on Edinburgh council after 3rd May. (I’m working on a more detailed blog post at the moment for the Edinburgh elections, with all the candidates for all the wards.) What will it say about the SNP if in 2014, in the capital of Scotland, there are no women representing the SNP on the council?

          “Why you choose to totally disregard the fact that significantly fewer women than men enter politics in the first place is for you to explain.”

          No problem! I’m disregarding it because other parties do better.

          That glib explanation for the lack of women standing for election as SNP that “women are less interested in politics” only worked when all parties were doing equally badly. When all other parties are doing better than the SNP and some parties are achieving equality of representation, this explanation looks rather different: the question then becomes “”Why you choose to totally disregard the fact that significantly fewer women than men enter SNP politics than for other parties is for you to explain.”

          “there are differing views as to how this might best be achieved. “

          Of course! But given that the parties most successful at achieving equal gender representation have done so by requiring it as a matter of party constitution, I think it behooves the parties who are failing to look at and emulate what’s proven to work.

          If the problem with the SNP is that there’s an overwhelming majority of men as members, then the solution is to actively work on making the SNP a party that women want to join and to actively work on ensuring that women who want to enter politics as a candidate can.

          But no rational person, male or female, disputes that candidates should always be selected on merit regardless of sex. “

          And yet so many “rational” people have been telling me that this is why the SNP has so few women candidates…

          • Peter A Bell

            Parties which choose to use a quota system may “do better” in the narrow arithmetic terms which are all you seem to care about. But there is a cost to be paid in terms of the fundamental principle of equality. Quite simply, sex should not be a criterion in selecting candidates any more than skin colour or any other factor which does not relate to the personal qualities and capacities of the (potential) candidate.

            Those parties which have taken the easy route of imposing quotas must ask themselves what they have really achieved in terms of realising gender equality in society. Have they changed society in any way? What would happen if their imposed quotas were removed? Would anything be different?

            Positive discrimination can serve a purpose. But it is not the magic bullet that you imagine.

            People have been telling you that the SNP selects candidates on merit. The bit about this being the reason for there being relatively few female candidates is entirely down to your own shallow prejudice and stubborn refusal to acknowledge any other factors. In short, you have started from an assumption that “institutional sexism” is the only possible explanation and worked backwards making everything fit tour assumptions as you go. Very satisfying for your own ego, I’ve no doubt. But not to be mistaken for a rational approach.

          • “Quite simply, sex should not be a criterion in selecting candidates any more than skin colour or any other factor which does not relate to the personal qualities and capacities of the (potential) candidate.”

            Certainly it shouldn’t. And yet, the SNP has clearly preferred men. You might feel a little less casual about those “narrow arithmetical grounds” if the gender bias were reversed.

            “Those parties which have taken the easy route of imposing quotas must ask themselves what they have really achieved in terms of realising gender equality in society. Have they changed society in any way?”

            Yes. Next question?

            “In short, you have started from an assumption that “institutional sexism” is the only possible explanation and worked backwards making everything fit tour assumptions as you go.”

            Actually, no. But you among others have convinced me that the SNP has a very, very big problem with institutional sexism – which it badly needs to fix.

      • Then let SNP defenders stop saying that the reason for the massive disproportion in men and women candidates for the local elections is “the SNP selects on merit”.

        I’m not making this up.

        Not making what up? Who gave such a defence? You said the SNP told you that the reason they have no institutional measures to promote candidates specifically on the basis of gender is that they prefer to select “on merit”. That’s quite different from saying that “merit” is the reason we have more male candidates.

        Or put another way: the SNP as a party makes no effort to make sure that women who are able to be candidates put themselves forward for selection, which is why the SNP as a party is doing so much worse than Labour – and no party does as well as the Greens.

        Well, yes, your SNP friend is saying that the party makes no especial effort to persuade women to stand. Should they? I’d say so. It’s better for a legislature to be demographically balanced. The common thought experiment which invites us to imagine an 80% female parliament is a good one, I find, to help me understand how the status quo looks to women.

        However, I can certainly grasp the argument that the sole criterion should be “merit”, and gender should be irrelevant. I think that’s naive, and fails to take into account various factors which are clearly making women reluctant to stand – but it’s not outside the parameters of reasonable discussion, or in the same league as “women are inferior to men”.

  5. Pingback: Wings over Scotland | Double takes and double standards

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