The tribulations facing BBC Scotland football pundit Jim Spence over the last week have again highlighted the intimidation tactics faced by some journalists in Scotland over the coverage of Rangers FC’s financial collapse.
The issue has even caught the attention of the International Federation of Journalists - a body that speaks for the profession within the United Nations. The organisation, more used to defending journalists in less stable parts of the world, described the situation as “unacceptable”. Meanwhile, the BBC and NUJ have come out fighting after Spence received “vile and disgusting” emails and texts and the BBC received over 400 complaints over a comment about the status of the club following its liquidation in 2012.
But the level of abuse directed at Spence over his comment was reported to have left him considering voluntary redundancy, fuelling concerns that intimidation tactics against journalists reporting on the story have not eased. Professor of journalism and Guardian media blogger Professor Roy Greenslade has described the situation as “very worrying” and BBC Scotland sports pundit Stuart Cosgrove said the “incoming fire” was forcing journalists away from reporting the story.
“I think that they’re facing an alarming situation in Scotland where newspapers and broadcasters are being intimidated into concealing reality and concealing the truth and that is very worrying indeed,” said Professor Greenslade.
“Clearly, a journalist should never face a threat for merely carrying out his job. It’s unacceptable to abuse someone who has merely attempted to report the truth.”
Last year, Channel 4 News broadcast a segment revealing a Scottish QC, Gary Allan, had been given anti-terror guidance from Scottish police after sitting on an SFA panel examining potential rule breaches by Rangers. Another panel member, chairman of Raith Rovers Football Club Turnbull Hutton, described a phone call from Fife police informing him that people had been “lined up” to torch the Raith Rovers stadium.
The incidents were part of a bigger picture. In last year’s Channel 4 News broadcast, NUJ Scotland organiser Paul Holleran said he had been contacted by more than 30 journalists in Scotland who had reason to be concerned for their safety after working on the story. But although he says indications are that the situation has calmed in the last 12 months, he says he believes the tactics have resulted in censorship for some.
“The situation has improved with far less complaints being registered with the union. However, every now and again, like this week, the situation reverts back to high levels of abuse,” he says.
“It is of course a way of attempting to censor journalists and stop them raising certain issues. I believe there has been some self-censorship because of the levels of abuse.”
Holleran said he has intervened three times with employers in a bid to tackle the problem and said the NUJ would take all steps it could to support those being targeted.
“We exist to protect journalists and journalism and we will not stand by and do nothing. We have taken steps this week which we believe will send a message out to the worst offenders but it is a problem for wider society to tackle.”
Of the latest developments in the now long-running saga, a spokesperson for the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists said: “We stand firmly with all the journalists who have been targeted by these threats and urge the Scottish authorities to take them seriously, investigate them thoroughly and bring those who are behind them to justice.
“Together with our regional group, the European Federation of Journalists, we consider that these reported threats to journalists in Scotland are an attempt to intimidate our colleagues and stifle public debate, something which is unacceptable.
He added: “There are legitimate venues for redress to those who wish to raise their concerns over publications in the press but threatening journalists with violence should not be tolerated in a democratic society.”
The Jim Spence incident comes almost exactly a year after the Scottish Sun pulled a serialisation of a book on the Rangers story, Downfall, by campaigning journalist Phil Mac Giolla Bháin, following a massive backlash by Rangers fans.
Upon publishing an interview about the death threats Mac Giolla Bháin had received after breaking many of the major stories charting Rangers' descent into crisis, the journalist who conducted the interview, Simon Houston, was then deluged with abuse himself on social media.
“He wasn’t prepared for that,” a source close to Houston told The Drum. “He called police in when it became clear on Rangers fan forums that there were attempts to track down his address. There was some really horrible stuff said about his family members. He came off Twitter for a while to let it die down.”
Mac Giolla Bháin believes the levels of abuse facing journalists in Scotland have impacted on their ability to do their jobs properly for fear of the consequences.
“Several journalists based in Glasgow have told me that they ‘tone it down’ when they are required to write about the behaviour of that section of Rangers supporters who indulge in racist and sectarian chanting because of direct threats made to them or because they know of what has befallen other colleagues,” he says.
“I think this is one of the reasons that sports journalists in Glasgow were slow to investigate the impending financial collapse of Rangers in 2010 and 2011.”
Mac Giolla Bháin, who lives in Ireland, is another on the list of journalists who have called in police after serious safety concerns.
“When my home address in Donegal appeared on the Follow Follow website and there was a free flowing discussion then about how and why I should be killed,” he went on.
“Further threats were made against me this year on two separate occasions via Twitter and once more the police here in Ireland were excellent.
“That was in June and although An Garda Síochána have been very diligent in keeping me in the loop I have not heard of any action being taken in Scotland about these threats.”
For some, the Rangers story has been a prime example of an emerging problem presented by the tools and influence digital technology now offers and there could be wider implications for the media if forms of intimidation online are not faced down.
Director of creative diversity at Channel 4 and BBC Scotland football pundit Stuart Cosgrove said the “democracy of debate” was being threatened.
“Online abuse is unacceptable in any context and passion for your club is not a credible excuse. We have gone through a period of extreme tribalism over the last year and some web forums have heightened emotions. It is now very easy to make ‘cut-and-paste’ complaints and therefore to use complaints as a tactic of intimidation.
“Some journalists can’t be bothered with the incoming fire and so avoid controversial football subjects which compromises the democracy of debate. When people bring a journalist or broadcaster’s kids into the fray you wonder if they have abandoned their humanity in the name of football.”
He added: “If you cannot advance reasonable opinions then something has gone wrong with the democratic mood and all titles and broadcasters should want to protect that fragile idea. All reasonable people whether they are journalists or hard-core football fans should respect diversity of opinion.”
According to the NUJ, BBC Scotland’s plans to back Jim Spence include taking its fight to the BBC Trust and challenging a ruling made in June that upheld complaints that the broadcaster’s use of the terms “old” and “new” to describe Rangers FC did not meet accuracy standards, despite liquidation over a year ago. Professor Greenslade has thrown his full backing behind plans to fight the case.
“I think the BBC Trust should reconsider their ruling in the light of better evidence that shows that BBC Scotland reporters were attempting to tell the truth and their ruling was a mistake.
“There were clearly unaware of the special circumstances and BBC Scotland should return to argue the case. They need to understand the situation better.”