#FrenchGate, James Cook and CyberNats: Voters dictating to journalists how they should report damages democracy

James Cook (far left) is muscled out of the media scrum around Nicola Sturgeon. Twitter/@cairnstoon

The BBC’s Scotland correspondent, James Cook has been on the end of a torrent of online abuse after he challenged Nicola Sturgeon in an interview about the leaked memo published by the Telegraph, which appears to show the First Minister’s support for David Cameron over Ed Miliband.

The memo, which has been categorically declared false by Sturgeon and the French Consulate, raises a multitude of questions that need answers. Is the story fabricated? Is Sturgeon lying to cover her tracks? Is Sturgeon the target of a smear campaign by the right-wing press? Is she being set up by the Scotland Office? Who initiated the leak?

Whatever your personal take on the story, clearly it demands more investigating and analysis. Tough questions need to be asked.

Yet for asking these very questions, James Cook was attacked by large numbers of ‘CyberNats’ and his integrity as journalist was questioned. The part of his reporting that particularly stuck in the craw of some nationalists was his refusal to name “senior SNP figures” who had told him it suits the SNP agenda to have a Tory remain in No.10 as it would assist the party’s drive towards independence.

This is not a particularly revelatory point to make. In Scotland both Labour and the SNP routinely use the threat of a Conservative government as a method by which to whip up support among voters. In fact Scottish Labour are running for the General Election in Scotland with the slogan “Vote SNP get Tories”. Another five years of Conservative rule would very probably bolster the SNP’s case for independence and thus the chance to hold a referendum. So Cook’s question was not only valid but somewhat obvious.


The greatest strength of the nationalist movement, its passion, is also at times its greatest weakness. Many of the SNP’s 100,000 plus members are not just there as supporters of a political party they are supporters of a cause: Scottish Independence. The belief and desire for an independent Scotland by many of its supporters is admirable but often some sections of the movement attack anyone who challenges the party line.

Not without good reason, nationalists decry the mainstream media for bias and for peddling their own ideological agendas. They have a point. The likes of The Daily Mail and Telegraph openly dislike the SNP and routinely feature negative stories pertaining to the party. But this is their right. They should be scrutinised and called out if they publish anything that can be proven to be false but they cannot be told who or what to support.

It is understandable that disillusionment with mainstream media has led nationalists to be particularly combative but some will take offence to anything that is printed which does not overtly support the independence cause and its leadership. What these people want is not journalism, its propaganda. Do they want to dictate to journalists what stories they should cover? How does that help democracy?

This minority do not represent the whole of the SNP or their leadership who are even described by right wing Spectator Editor, Fraser Nelson as “refreshingly open-minded, good-humoured and intelligent.” Yet this minority are very vocal and know how to be heard.

The sense is that the #FrenchGate story has not yet run its course and there may be more revelations to come. In the meantime If nationalists seek propaganda they can always pick up a copy of The National.


Social Media Manager and reporter @the_weeg .Digital Journalism postgrad at Strathclyde University.

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