The attacks on Jim Spence are an attack on democracy


  By Phil Mac Giolla Bháin
I was not surprised to learn of the harassment directed at BBC Scotland’s Jim Spence last week by supporters of a particular football club.
As well as vile abuse on social media, Spence and his wife were confronted while out walking in Dundee.  After the incident he called the police.

  By Phil Mac Giolla Bháin
I was not surprised to learn of the harassment directed at BBC Scotland’s Jim Spence last week by supporters of a particular football club.
As well as vile abuse on social media, Spence and his wife were confronted while out walking in Dundee.  After the incident he called the police.

He tweeted that if this type of behaviour continued, journalists in Scotland would soon be too frightened to speak out.  The BBC has given the sports reporter the week off in the hope that the furore will die down.

So far the repose of his employers in protecting him has been less than impressive from my vantage point.

The Dundonian’s crime was to state on BBC Radio Scotland that, in the opinion of many, when Rangers (1872) were liquidated last summer it was the end of that club.  His comments were then chopped from the archived podcast.

It is fair to say that among the broad kirk of Scottish football supporters it is only the home crowd at Ibrox believe that the club that was liquidated last summer is still alive.  Sevco Scotland Limited, headed up by Charles Green, bought the assets from the Administrators and the new club started in the bottom tier of Scottish football.

Of course the veracity of Spence’s broadcast is beside the point, even if he had made the most embarrassing howler, he should be free to do that without being vilified or threatened.  Across some areas of social media the fact that Spence attended a faith school suddenly became relevant for some Rangers fans.

I cannot say that I was surprised at the treatment of Spence by elements of the Rangers support.  Indeed it was something of a ‘welcome to my world’ moment.

When I first wrote about Rangers and some of their fans in the autumn of 2008 during my coverage of the racist ‘Famine Song’, it was suddenly like turning on a tap of online smears and threats that have never really went away.  Abusive and clearly defamatory material started to appear about me on Rangers supporters message boards almost immediately.

The perpetrators were usually anonymous and did not seem to have any boundaries for their invective.

In the summer of 2010 I had started to write about the HMRC investigation into Rangers.  Once more I became a focus of online vitriol.  My home address was posted on the ‘Follow Follow’ website.  One poster stated “I want to kill this man”.  When I learned of this I reported it to An Garda Síochána and they launched an investigation which included contacting Strathclyde police.

However, the police here in Donegal were never informed of any arrests in Scotland.  I remain surprised at this given the serious nature of this online material.  I was also given security advice by An Garda Síochána and I have continued to abide by it.

As well as threats to my person there was an almost continuous diet of online defamation.  Bizarre scenarios were invented and shoehorned into my personal history.  Had any newspaper printed a fraction of these libels then I would now be very wealthy.

I had my solicitor, an expert in media law in Ireland, write to the hosting company of the Follow Follow website and its moderator regarding the clearly defamatory assertions being made about myself and my family.  It had little effect.  This summer I received threats to my life on Twitter and again my local police acted on this immediately.

Because the alleged perpetrator could be tracked to the UK (Scotland) it was appropriate that An Garda Síochána passed on the information to their Scottish colleagues.  I have yet to be told if the Scottish police have acted upon this request from their Irish colleagues.

When my book on the collapse of Rangers (Downfall.  How Rangers FC self-destructed) was published last year the online chatter about me reached a crescendo.

Moreover, there was a determined attempt to bully Downfall out of the shops in Glasgow, staff in several stores were abused and threatened.  For several months ‘Downfall’ was an under-the-counter item in some shops in the city. 

Despite this it became a best seller in Scotland last year.

Alex Thomson of Channel 4 News wrote the foreword that it was “a tale of our times brilliantly told”.  As with Jim Spence’s broadcast, even if the book had little to commend it the situation where women working in shops were being put in fear is indefensible.

I quickly realised when I started to write about this section of the Ibrox crowd that they have no boundaries apropos normal civilised conduct.

In terms of my own personal safety, I do not believe that it would have been possible for me to write so extensively on stories relating to Rangers Football Club and a section of its supporters had I lived in Glasgow.

I know from my own conversations with journalists in the city that many of them now self-censor when it comes to covering the financial troubles of the Ibrox club or the behaviour of some Rangers supporters.  This is because they have either experienced intimidation themselves or they are aware that their colleagues have been targeted.

Therefore in retrospect I am not surprised that journalists in Glasgow were so reticent about approaching the story about the impending financial collapse of the club back in 2010.

The situation with Jim Spence and the attempt by a section of Rangers supporters to have him disciplined or dismissed is therefore not aberrant behaviour for this sub-culture.  When I broke the story that he had applied for voluntary redundancy from the BBC there was a celebratory mood on the Sevco corner of the internet.

Scotland, like the north-east of Ireland, is home to an intolerant underclass that identifies with Rangers Football Club.  They are relatively few in number, but there are enough of them to interfere with the work of the Fourth Estate if not stopped by the authorities.

Until this sub-culture feels the full force of the criminal justice system, then I believe what Jim Spence and his wife experienced will happen to other journalists and their families in Scotland.

I hope the flame haired Dundee United fan re-considers his application for redundancy and stays in the press box where straight talking good guys are scarce enough.

An attack on any journalist is an attack on journalism and attack on journalism is an attack on democracy.  That is why everyone who values freedom in Scotland should back Jim Spence and not the fascist underclass who wish to silence him.

Phil Mac Giolla Bháin is an author, blogger, journalist and writer.  He is an active member of the National Union of Journalists, sitting on the Irish Executive Council and the New Media Industrial Council.
He is also the editor of the ‘Irish Journalist’ the NUJ’s in house magazine for members in Ireland.
Phil was a columnist with An Phoblacht for many years and he has also contributed to publications as diverse the Guardian, the Irish Independent, Magill magazine and the Irish Post
His new book
‘Minority Reporter Modern Scotland’s bad attitude towards her own Irish’ is out now.