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Why I hate the Scottish government’s anti-hate campaign

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By Gordon Young, Editor-in-Chief

March 26, 2024 | 6 min read

The Drum’s editor-in-chief Gordon Young speaks out on an ‘unnuanced’ anti-hate campaign (and bill) from the Scottish government.

A still from Leith agency

There are just some great lines that should be left well alone. From the world of advertising, I love ‘I love New York.’ And if anybody is thinking of messing with the Nike line, well, just don’t do it. The same could be said of Nike about the design of the England flag, but let’s leave graphics out of this.

From general culture - ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ comes to mind. And then there’s the nursery rhyme ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,’ a line that has been the anti-bully refrain in playgrounds for 150 years. Despite its longevity, the Scottish government and the Leith agency ignored the ‘if it ain’t broke rule’ when it came to sticks and stones with its latest campaign, ‘Hate Hurts.’

A series of commercials explain the Scottish government’s new hate crime law has given it a variety of new treatments that I don’t think will reverberate down the generations.

One line reads, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words make me feel hated just for being me.”

Not quite as catchy is it? Make up your own mind, watch it below.

Now, in fairness, I reckon that even in Victorian times, people realized words could hurt. However, the trick was always to avoid giving the bully the satisfaction of knowing that. It is one of these rhymes that seems simple on one level but offers quite a nuanced insight into how the world worked.

There is no such nuance in this campaign.

Perhaps that’s the fault of the new law, which is itself a blunt instrument, and some argue could immflame some situations. From April 1, if you offend someone on the grounds that include race, disability, age, sexual orientation, trans rights and religion, you may have committed an offense - and any view that falls within this scope, whether expressed in a private home, on a stage or overheard in a pub, can be investigated as a crime.

At its heart, the law creates a new offense of ‘stirring up hatred.’ But ‘hatred’ itself is not defined. The Scottish police say a hate crime is “any crime which is perceived by the victim or any other person to be motivated, wholly or in part, by malice, ill will and prejudice towards a person or a social group.”

That suggests anyone could claim to be a victim of a crime simply because they say they are. People such as author JK Rowling could be targeted because of their position on the trans debate. And those outside Scotland should not be too smug. Scottish prosecutors could move against organizations in England and beyond if they deem enough people in their jurisdiction have been exposed to material that falls foul of the new law.

Adding to the authoritarian vibe, people can report alleged crimes at 400 community reporting centers. Small businesses, shops and public offices (even a sex shop near The Drum’s Glasgow office) have been designated to receive tip-offs.

Already dubbed ‘clyping centers’, the police say that every allegation will be investigated. And even if no criminal action is taken, some reports will be filed as non-crime hate incidents, potentially barring people from jobs that require NCHI-enhanced disclosure documentation.

This is starting to sound like the Chinese social credit system.

It explains why the new law is particularly controversial. Some worry it will have a chilling effect on social media, traditional media, theatre, comedy as well as debate generally. Scotland is the home of the Enlightenment, a period defined by robust debate and a rejection of authority that was not based on reason. This legislation heralds a move back towards a darker age.

Debate is already being dampened in this rain-soaked land.

Now I am as anti-hate as anyone. Hate crimes should be acted against. But there is also a broader sense that the legislation is unneccessary. Leith’s campaign showed several scenarios, all of which would have been covered under existing law. For example, Police Scotland is already investigating homophobic comments shouted at Patrick Harvey, the co-leader of the Scottish Greens under established legislation. Vandalism is covered. Anti-social behavior is covered. Violence covered. Existing laws are focused on the threat of violence, with the speech considered as an aggravating factor.

This new legislation focuses on the speech alone.

That’s why the commercial seems disingenuous. Its timing in the run-up to the new act coming into force will lead people to assume that there is currently nothing to protect victims of hate speech, which is not the case.

It is also depressing to see great creative minds deployed in this way. Scotland’s best agencies should not be asked to answer briefs that make them complicit in chilling free speech.

It makes me want to head down to the local sex shop to file a report.

Brand Strategy Scotland UK Government

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