Newsnight: there was no meltdown

Lallans Peat Worrier, an SNP blogger at an Oxford college, writes:

At some point in our lives, most of us should have encountered a moment when we were surrounded by people for whom some cherished conviction of our own was absolutely anathema. Whether representative of the wider population or not, this “common sense in the room” can be intoxicating. For an extreme instance, watch Scottish Questions at Westminster, which is now devoted to pouring vial after vial of scorn over SNP heads. In the great baying mob of MPs, the isolated Nationalist delegation’s voices are thin, reedy and invariably drowned out in a haughty chorus of gleeful insolence.

The SNP said they’d hold a referendum on independence after they’d won two elections. Salmond said, before the 2011 election, that if the SNP won the referendum would be held in the second half of the Scottish Parliament. The SNP have won two elections, and so have a democratic mandate to hold a referendum on independence, and a right – seeing as they are in government – to say when it shall be held.

That is doubtless very aggravating for Labour, who have a Westminster majority of Scottish MPs, but that’s democracy for you.

I heard that Ian Davidson, Labour MP for Glasgow South West, career Labour politician since 1978, and currently still chair of the Scottish Affairs Select Committee despite having called the SNP “neo-fascists” and having threatened a fellow MP on the committee with a “doing”, had now had a “meltdown” over exactly this issue on Newsnight Scotland on Tuesday.

So I checked it out while it was still on BBC iPlayer (till 11:29PM Tuesday 14th August, if you want to check it out yourself) but the segment is now on Youtube for all time, or at least till Google get a request to take it down.

Clearly to set the validity of the referendum beyond dispute, Westminster should issue a Section 30 order giving Holyrood powers to conduct a referendum by 5 November 2015 (that is, giving at least six months between the referendum and the next Scottish general election) to be carried out in accordance with the usual referendum process. It would be undemocratic, as well as irrational and stupid, for Westminster to attempt to set further conditions on matters for Holyrood to decide.

Unfortunately, it appears that Ian Davidson is trying to do just that. He may not realise it, from his 34 years as a career politician, but this is not a fight that Westminster can win.

Michael Kelly assumes that Ian Davidson “won” the argument because he talked over Isabel Fraser, as men do when women disagree with them. Stuart Campbell (and other SNP #YesScot tweeple) claimed Davidson had a meltdown. Neither are correct.

Isabel Fraser won because she’s a TV interviewer who got a politician to express his views bluntly on national TV. (She also pointed out that he’d been very offensive in accusing Newsnight of having a pro-SNP bias, but having made clear it was offensive and untrue and given Ian Davidson the opportunity to apologise, she calmly moved on. Good for her.)

But Michael Kelly apparently thinks that a man wins an argument with a woman if he’s offensive and then refuses to apologise:

Davidson won his personal attack on Fraser, refusing to apologise, going on to suggest that there was evidence of “Newsnat’s” bias and suggesting that she go and stand for election if she wanted to promulgate her own views. Despite her vehement denials of any partisanship, Davidson stuck to his guns and she had to move on, unsatisfied.

As Jennie Kermode notes:

It’s not the first time Ian Davidson has been accused of bullying, with Eilidh Whiteford withdrawing from the Scottish Affairs Select Committee last year amid allegations that he threatened to give her ‘a doing’, and others have accused him of bullying women in particular. Would he have treated Newsnight presenter Isabel Fraser differently if she had been male? That’s difficult to say, but the dismissive way he began responding to her before letting her finish her argument speaks volumes. He was not only aggressive, he was unwilling to countenance that anything she said could be of value.

The incident last October was when Ian Davidson told Dr Eilidh Whiteford, the SNP MP for Banff and Buchan, that if she leaked anything about a private meeting of the Scottish Affairs Committee she would be “getting a doing” from him later. Caron Lindsay, LibDem blogger, notes that:

Clearly I wasn’t there. I have seen Ian Davidson use strong and pugnacious language on many occasions, though. I also know and like Eilidh Whiteford and am absolutely certain that she would not make something like that up. I have enough faith in her as a person to trust what she says on this.

The BBC states that concerns about Ian Davidson’s language were first raised by officials, which may explain why this has not been made public until now. I can’t imagine that Eilidh will have made the decision to do so lightly, either – for precisely the reason of the pasting she’s getting from Labour. Their response has been gruff and churlish. We’ll see what they have to say in a fuller statement later.

In the end, as so frequently happens when a man makes an inappropriate comment that makes a woman feel uncomfortable, the men rally round to support him (from Dave Hewitt at the Caledonian Mercury to Simon Johnson at the Daily Telegraph), and the woman has to leave: Dr Eilidh Whiteford

stressed that she is not resigning from the committee, but will not attend its proceedings until the situation is resolved.

In her letter to MPs she said: “I do not believe this behaviour is compatible with the position of chair of a select committee, and therefore do not intend to return to the committee while Mr Davidson remains in that role.”

Ian Davidson’s version of events is that he said “you’ve had a doing” – past tense – and he meant:

“She had been rebuked quite severely for misbehaviour, led off by myself, a number of other people came in and said what she had done was unacceptable, they were very unhappy with it. I then stepped in and felt that the discussion had gone far enough, said that ‘you’ve had a doing, let’s move on to the next item’. I want to make it very clear, I did not at any time threaten or attempt to threaten Dr Whiteford. What I said was referring to the past ‘you have had a doing’, and I apologise subsequently for the word ‘doing’ because somebody said to me that’s capable of misinterpretation.”

The man at the Daily Telegraph called Eilidh Whiteford’s complaint “dirty tricks” and the man at the Caledonian Mercury said Eilidh Whiteford should “grow a thicker skin”. The Labour party responded in two ways: an official spokesman for Scottish Labour said:

“We will look carefully at these allegations and make a full statement later”

while an unnamed Labour source anonymously smeared Whiteford with the comment:

“It is reprehensible. This has all the hallmarks of a smear campaign.”

When another woman, Gail Lythgoe, employed as an assistant to Joan McAlpine, was found to have sent an email about the situation with Ian Davidson, this was too was branded a “dirty trick” though I can well believe Lythgoe was just trying a “women back each other up” moment: unlike Davidson, she apologised for doing so.

You can read what both Whiteford and Davidson said about the situation BBC Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland. In relation to this, I was thinking about Captain Awkward’s response to two questions about My friend group has a case of the Creepy Dude. How do we clear that up? and the amazing discussion that followed.

I should say at once: I have no reason to believe that Ian Davidson’s behaviour towards the women in his personal life is anything other than irreproachable. It’s just how he acts and talks towards women in his political career that seems problematic.

Going back to the situation on Newsnight.

Ian Davidson didn’t have a meltdown. He was rude, certainly, and he was foolishly offensive in repeatedly referring to Newsight as “News-nat”, but the impression I got was that he had simply said exactly what he intended to say, in the way he intended to say it. He was calmly offensive, smug and angry, in a way that would genuinely scare me if he were in authority over me – a man who is absolutely certain he’s in the right and he can be as rude as he likes without apology.

Davidson’s view, quite calmly expressed, is that Westminster has every right to set whatever conditions they wish on the Scottish referendum, and that they should set the conditions which are most likely to ensure that the “Better Together” vote gains the majority – that “Yes Scotland” loses. His view is also that Newsnight is biased and that it was unfair to have a constitutional lawyer interviewed who expressed the view that Holyrood does have a right to hold the referendum. Ian Davidson has a perfect right to hold and to express those views, but:

“Yes Scotland”‘s great weakness is that it tends towards the male pale and stale in Scottish politics: SNP membership is (2007-08) only 31.8%/68.2% female/male, SNP MSPs are mostly men, and at recent elections both council and Parliament, the SNP selected predominantly men as candidates.

Scottish Labour looks decidedly more egalitarian and women-friendly by comparison. Ian Davidson’s presence in the circle, tolerated and even supported by his party, presents a rather different picture.

Considering the pattern of what happened when Ian Davidson made that comment to Eilidh Whiteford – first the unacceptable comment, then the claim that he was being smeared by his political enemies who should apologise to him when there were objections – I think there’s a pattern here.

Yesterday night (Thursday) Ian Davidson demanded that Newsnight should apologise to him. He said:

“It’s outrageous the BBC should act in this way, presenting an SNP activist and blogger as an impartial academic.

“The issue for me is whether Isabel Fraser knew his background. If not, she was incompetent. If so, this was a conspiracy.

“I was clearly being set up by someone for an ambush. Either way I deserve an apology for the way this programme was conducted.”

Andrew Tickell is a DPhil candidate at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies at Oxford:

In 2009, he graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 2008 with a 1st Class Honours degree in Law, awarded with the Lord President Cooper Memorial Prize. A year of his undergraduate study was spent in the Universiteit Utrecht in the Netherlands. In December 2009 he completed an MSc in Equality and Human Rights (awarded with distinction) at the University of Glasgow’s School of Sociology, Anthropology and Applied Social Sciences with a thesis exploring ‘Gender and the Scottish Bar: Masculinity, Femininity & Representation in the Faculty of Advocates.’ He holds an Arts and Humanities Research Council Award.

He’s also the Lallans Peat Worrier:

a traditional Scottish, quasi-intellectual “peat worrier” (defined below) who is a supporter of the Scottish National Party, but who remains distinctly intellectually free floating. If prodded, I would give my inward political affiliations as Robespierrist Neo-Jacobin. Besides my political enthusiasms, I’m professionally interested in Scots and European human rights law and institutions; moral philosophy and ethics, sociology (particularly of law) with the odd dod of criminology for that recidivistic frisson.

I doubt if after 34 years in politics, it really surprised Ian Davidson that the BBC wanted to have two opposing voices on Newsnight – himself with the point of view that Westminster could impose whatever conditions it pleased on Holyrood, and a legal academic with the point of view that there was no prior case law about this and a strong possibility that if it came to a fight in the courts, the Scottish government might actually win.

Davidson is, I think, simply using the existance of an academic who is also a blogger with SNP politics as an excuse for his unacceptable behaviour – much as Creeper #1 in the Cap’n Awkward blog was using drinking as an excuse for his unacceptable behaviour. But the fact is, and plain to see: Davidson didn’t have a meltdown. He was calm and controlled. He’s just apparently accustomed to being able to talk any which way he likes to women in politics, and get an apology from them or from their employers if they cause him any trouble by complaining about it.

Eilidh Whiteford said:

“We know now that at least one other member of the committee heard his remarks, and understand that another member passed him a note regarding his comments. I accept that some members of the committee did not hear the remarks, given that they were, as Mr McGovern seems to acknowledge, made in a casual, throwaway manner. For me, this only served to reinforce their menacing nature, a menace that was compounded by Mr Davidson’s subsequent comments immediately following the meeting.

So, over to the Scottish Labour Party. You have a Creepy Dude problem in your friends-circle. Women have told you he’s been saying things which make them uncomfortable.

What are you going to do about it?

Jennie Kermode has an answer:

it is tempting to simply ignore them and find a way of routing discussion around them. That’s one thing online; it’s a little harder when it happens in parliamentary select committees or on national television programmes. But there is a simple solution, and that is for the rest of us to refuse to engage in the first place. A man who cannot conduct himself respectably on Newsnight should not be invited back. A committee whose spokesperson conducts himself in such a manner should not be heeded. Real authority comes not from institutions but from the people. Those who do not respect that cannot expect to play any meaningful role in our political culture.

It’s time for an end to negative politics. I don’t want to hear any whining about who started it. Each of us should be concerned first and foremost with our own conduct. We should aim to set an example, not partake in a race to the bottom. Scotland deserves better. The Scottish people should be able to say to their politicians – whatever side they sit on – yes, yes, yes!

Update, 13th August, from the National Union of Journalists:

There are big political decisions ahead for Scotland. The independence referendum campaign probably has more than two years to run. The NUJ believes there should be increased opportunities across the media for robust exchanges. But we also believe it is essential that respect is shown to participants if we are to maximise the number of people willing to take part in those debates. They also need to respect the role of journalists in fairly moderating those debates, and refrain from intimidation and personal abuse.

In particular we are concerned about threats about future employment at the country’s main broadcaster as well as public labelling of journalists and programmes as being biased. BBC Scotland’s journalism is rightly scrutinised very closely by people and parties on all sides of the political debate. No journalist working for the organisation has a problem with this. However, there is an increasing trend towards the intimidation of BBC journalists, who are working hard to hold politicians of all sides to account in the referendum debate.

And (14th August) Ian Davidson stands condemned in the Scottish Review Cafe by Jill Stephenson:

Perhaps he is representative of a certain kind of Scottish male, and perhaps those who complain about the middle classes’ alleged aversion to the west of Scotland working-class mens’ ‘culture’ (in an SR too long ago to trace) will reckon that his behaviour is perfectly acceptable. For my part, as a non-separatist, I hope and trust that the ‘Better Together’ leaders will not allow this person anywhere near their campaign.

16 Comments

Filed under Scottish Constitution, Scottish Politics

16 responses to “Newsnight: there was no meltdown

  1. Point of order: I am not “SNP tweeple”. I’m not a member of the party, I’ve never been a member of the party, and I don’t vote for them. I support independence.

  2. You’ve also misinterpreted what I meant by “meltdown”, but hey ho.

    • “Meltdown” is really not the word I would use to describe Ian Davidson’s Newsnight interview. He didn’t lose control at any point.

      • That’s not what “meltdown” means, though. I’ll spare you the analogy with the old comic strip “Meltdown Man” that I was referencing for about 0.5% of my readership, and also the implied wordplay on “Piltdown Man”, intended to suggest Mr Davidson was something of a Neanderthal from Labour’s caveman days, and focus instead on the literal meaning.

        A meltdown, as I’m sure you know, is when a nuclear reactor’s safety mechanisms fail and the fuel breaches its containment, causing huge damage and contamination. It is NOT, except in the broadest atomic sense, an explosion.

        I’m sure Mr Davidson used the word “Newsnat” deliberately, though I don’t believe he went into the studio intending to say it. I think his arrogance caused him to adopt a cavalier attitude to the interview which left him ill-prepared for the questions he was asked, at which point his safety mechanisms failed.

        Rather than give what would have been essentially the same answer in a calm and measured fashion – “Yes, we COULD give the power to the Scottish Government, but we don’t think that would be in the best interests of the Scottish people” – he panicked and fell back on his instinctive reaction, namely to bully and belittle the female having the audacity to question him.

        (We are, of course, speculating at this point, but I don’t think there’s an iota of a chance he’d have addressed Gordon Brewer in the same way.)

        Again, I’ll spare you a long-winded analogy with what happened at Chernobyl. But in doing what he did, and in doing so in a manner that was at once astonishingly condescening and unimaginably juvenile for an experienced 62-year-old politician, he spilled toxic waste all over the shop. The contamination is still spreading all across the media three days later.

        The interview should have been humdrum. We all knew what his laughably partisan committee was going to conclude, and his appearance should have been a dull formality in which he pretended it had reached its conclusions impartially, nobody believed him, and now a look at tomorrow’s papers. Instead, there are alarms going off in a hundred-mile radius, as nationalists loudly jump all over his idiocy and poodles like Alan Cochrane and Magnus Gardham desperately try to fight the fires, while the vast bulk of normally-garrulous online Labour activists cower in concrete bunkers and try to pretend nothing’s happened.

        That’s the “meltdown” that happened on Tuesday.

  3. A very nicely considered account, irrespective of the question of a meltdown. Davidson really is the Creepy Dude.

    Davidson’s attack on Andrew Tickell is – I think – a newer development. I suspect Davidson didn’t know who he was….until Magnus Gardham told him.

    Thereupon he seized on it as a way of exculpating himself and was usefully helped by Gardham, who is a personal ally. But its too obvious.

    • I think it’s less embarrassing for a man like Ian Davidson if he pretends he was annoyed by another man, rather than admitting he didn’t like getting challenged by a woman.

  4. Elizabeth

    Ian Davidson hated the way Isabel Fraser was pulling him up. He has a good conceit of himself and his role as Chairman of the Scottish Affairs committee and it didn’t suit him at all to have his conclusions raked over and found wanting, particularly by a wummin, and a smart one at that.. He didn’t have the knowledge or arguments to counter her points so deliberately resorted to being offensive in order to change the focus of the questioning. I don’t believe he lost the plot. He’s arrogant, calculating and a nasty piece of work.

    • I agree. He clearly isn’t bothered, on the programme, by what Andrew Tickell said: he’s just annoyed that Isabel Fraser is challenging him, and it seems clear he does not care for being talked back to by a mere woman.

  5. May you live in interesting times

    Not fond of Davidson but it looks like he was set up. The viewers should have been told more about Tickell before he spoke. People were led to believe he was impartial and an expert on the constitution. That was wrong – deceitful and underhand – and leads me to believe that Davidson might just be right.

    • Not fond of Davidson but it looks like he was set up.

      In what way? Nothing Andrew Tickell said justified how Ian Davidson behaved to Isabel Fraser.

      People were led to believe he was impartial and an expert on the constitution

      Er – please cite, exactly, in what words, Isabel Fraser said “Here is an impartial expert on the constitution”. I’ve just listened to the segment again, and I think you’re making that up.

      That was wrong – deceitful and underhand

      Oh come off it. Every news programme attempts to find “balance”. Ian Davidson doesn’t even try to sound angry or upset with Andrew Tickell on Newsnight – he notes that Tickell said it was arguable, and says lawyers will argue anything.

      – and leads me to believe that Davidson might just be right.

      Only if you’re a die-hard Labour supporter and a bit of a sexist git, like Davidson.

  6. Indy

    I also think that Ian Davidson did not intend to use the term Newsnat when he went into the studio, nor to make specific allegations against Isabel Fraser. I think he just said that because he was annoyed. Politicians are generally briefed by their comms people before they go on TV. I can only imagine said people watched the interview with their heads in their hands. I agree that it was not a meltdown in the sense of someone losing control. But it was a meltdown in the sense that private chat about Newsnight being too pro SNP was made public and I can’t believe that was intentional.

    I also think the fact that Andrew Tickell is a nat is completely irrelevant.in ths context, although Labour have latched onto this as though it somehow retrospectively justifies the attack. It is irrelevant because his opinion is an independent one. There is no substance to the suggestion that he was brought on to punt the SNP line on the referendum for the simple reason that he did not do that. He said it was arguable both ways.

    • Hard to say, and we’re certainly not going to learn the truth from Ian Davidson. But we can see his behaviour, towards Isabel Fraser and Eilidh Whiteford – he really does not seem to like women who challenge him.

  7. Was Davidson paid for his appearance? I believe it is normal practice. If so, why should we believe him any more than he believe lawyers who don’t agree with him?

    I have searched the web to find any mention of Davidson’s academic or professional qualifications to set against Peat’s impressive list. I searched in vain. Does Davidson actually have any achievements at all that he can boast of?

    @georgefoulkes has tweeted to say that davidson has become a bit of a labour hero! That has to be good news for the #YES campaign!

  8. Jim Fraser

    You are right, Eye, it wasn’t a meltdown. Mr. Davidson seemed to execute exactly what he had planned. I suspect he would have done so in pretty much the same way if Gordon Brewer had been the interviewer. It just seemed a bit more bullying when done with a lady.

    It’s interesting that he thought the BBC being biased towards the SNP/Yes camp was an angle worth pursuing. It seems a bit laughable. Perhaps he was just trying to muddy the waters?

    Mind you, I can’t bring myself to agree that the BBC is anti-SNP/Yes, if anything it just seems to be a bit pro-status quo/leave things alone.

    In any event “the BBC are biased against us!” seems, on either side, to be a waste of time as campaign slogans go, since most British people think the BBC at least tries to be as impartial as it can.

    Either way, being a bully, and specifically a bully of women (no matter how capable they were of defending themselves) is the issue about Mr. Davidson. Better Together should have a quiet word with him, otherwise he may inadvertently squander the quite sizeable lead they have among women north of the border in indyref research.

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