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MP abuse: 'I had a police escort after a death threat'

By Glenn Campbell
Chief political correspondent, BBC Scotland

Published
media captionFour politicians from across the political spectrum described their experience of abuse

More than 100 abuse complaints against Scottish politicians have been reported since the summer, with 35 leading to criminal investigations.

Police attribute it to the "febrility" of the political atmosphere.

Politicians have increasingly become the target of abuse, and, as polling day approaches, women politicians are speaking up about it.

BBC Scotland has spoken to four female parliamentarians from the 2017-2019 term about its impact.

'Credible' death threat

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image captionJoanna Cherry has been one of the MPs who received the most abuse

Joanna Cherry is accustomed to abuse, describing most of it as "just offensive". But recently she received something far more sinister.

"Earlier this year, I did receive something... which [police] took to be a credible death threat and I had to have a police escort to my constituency surgery," she recalls.

That was one of the more serious messages she received - but there have been many more abusive messages that went unreported to police.

Last year, research suggested that for a period around the 2017 election the SNP politician was the second most abused member of parliament on social media, behind Labour's Dianne Abbott - who also received racist abuse as well as abuse about being a woman.

Ms Cherry said. "A lot of abuse I receive is misogynistic, but it's also homophobic, anti-Catholic, and also people resent me because they see me as a strong voice in favour of Scottish independence... and Brexit".

The problem, she believes, is "rife" across the political spectrum.

Had she known the level of abuse she would receive she says she "may not have chosen to follow this path".

The abuse has upset her family, and has at times affected her in a "significant" way too, but after more than four years in the job, she says she has developed a "thick skin".

But she worries that such abuse might discourage other women from entering politics and believes social media companies should take stronger action to protect women from misogynistic abuse.

"We should never forget that a female member of parliament was murdered by a man motivated by right-wing terrorism", she added.

'You're just a snowflake, you need to man up'

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image captionKirstene Hair thinks threats have to be taken seriously

Kirstene Hair was the only female Scottish Conservative MP in the last parliament. The "torrent" of abuse directed at her was, she says, far more intense than that received by her male colleagues.

"I can deal with it - the problem is I don't want to deal with it", she said. "I do ignore it - I would go insane if I didn't."

She believes it would be a mistake not to take the threats seriously.

"The thing I say back to everyone who says 'you're just a snowflake', or 'you need to man up', is you don't know when someone writes something... on social media if they are actually capable of doing something much worse and we don't know that therefore... we do have to have additional security and support."

Events have demonstrated, she says, that the hatred directed at politicians can have real, harmful consequences.

"It's not just a threat on social media, we've seen people go further. I can't just say 'that won't happen to me'."

Ms Hair added: "I'm 30, a lot of my friends are about the age that we want people to start... getting involved [in politics]... they turn round and say 'I couldn't do your job'."

'British politics is tribal and nasty'

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image captionChristine Jardine doesn't want to let bullies win

Christine Jardine, of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, is another politician who is no stranger to abuse. Despite the hurt she says she has never thought about quitting politics - because "that would be letting the bullies win".

She believes it is a "safety mechanism" to assume that most threats are "just someone mouthing off".

Most cases of abuse go unrecorded. But politicians are encouraged to report serious incidents to the police. Ms Jardine recounted an incident where she did just that, after receiving an answer phone message which contained threats of rape and beatings.

More than 100 complaints have been made to police by Scottish MPs and MSPs since the summer - roughly one for every two parliamentarians in Scotland - and 35 have triggered criminal investigations.

Ms Jardine said: "You expect people not to agree with you in politics... but you don't expect people to actually write personally nasty things abut you.

"British politics has always been tribal and nasty. But it's got worse... We have to try and fix the system."

Imagined acid attack

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image captionDanielle Rowley said it was "terribly sad" that there is so much anger towards politicians

While much of the abuse happens on social media, MPs are still routinely targeted by email, letter, on the phone and sometimes face to face.

Labour's Danielle Rowley told of one incident when she received a handwritten letter which imagined her being attacked with acid at a public meeting.

She said it was "terribly sad" that there was so much anger towards politicians. It isn't acceptable for anyone to be threatened.

She accepts that politicians had "always been target for anger" but she believes the problem has worsened considerably.

The number of elections and referendums in recent years has meant people face "wall to wall coverage", which opens politicians up to more abuse.

Despite the growing pressures, she said that helping constituents made the job worthwhile: "When I carried out surgeries, when you're able to help [constituents] and advocate for change, that's so important and that's what keeps you going.

"I'll always take hope for being able to help people."

Political atmosphere

Police Scotland's Assistant Chief Constable Mark Williams says there has been a definite rise in the volume of cases this year.

He puts that down to the "febrility" of the political atmosphere, with ongoing debates over Brexit and independence.

ACC Williams said the force was determined to tackle harassment, threats and physical and verbal abuse.

"We take it very seriously and we will investigate it and we will bring those people to justice" he said.

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