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NUJ calls for end to threats and intimidation of journalists reporting on the referendum in Scotland

15 September 2014

The NUJ has expressed concern at the increase in intimidation and bullying of journalists covering the independence referendum and calls for people on both sides of the campaign to rein in the abuse being directed at our members.

For the duration of the referendum there has been hostility to journalists doing their jobs. Much of this is fuelled by the availability of social media, allowing contributors anonymity to make personal attacks on individuals.

The tone of the debate has made it increasingly common for those who do not wish anonymity – some of them in prominent and responsible positions – to make personal attacks on journalists for doing their jobs. We believe this has also fuelled more serious threats from individuals to journalists who they disagree with.

The NUJ will not accept this treatment of their members and have already advised a number of journalists in making legal complaints to the police. We will also name and shame individuals and organisations that continue to threaten or bully our members.

More widely, the NUJ asks the leadership on both sides to consider carefully the implications of their attacks on journalists for asking challenging questions. If that is to be interpreted as bias, and therefore the journalist is deemed to be open to personal criticism and abuse, then the nature of public debate will be debased, and we will all suffer.

The NUJ is also challenging news organisations, and editors, to question their own values when they give column inches or airtime to attacks on journalists from rival organisations. Journalists need to ask where that leaves our role, collectively, in holding those in power to account.

There are massive political decisions ahead for Scotland and the independence referendum campaign is coming to a frenzied close. The NUJ believes there will and should be increased opportunities across the media for robust exchanges, challenging all participants in the debate but carried out in a civilised manner.

The union believes it is essential that respect is shown to participants if journalists are to maximise the number of people willing to take part in those debates. They also need to respect the role of journalists in fairly moderating those debates, and refrain from intimidation and personal abuse.

In particular, the NUJ is concerned about threats about future employment at the country's main broadcaster as well as public labelling of journalists and programmes as being biased. As the Public Service Broadcaster, BBC Scotland's journalism is rightly scrutinised very closely by people and parties on all sides of the political debate.

No journalist working for the organisation has a problem with this, but they have been singled out by demonstrations which by and large have been loud and rowdy but can be perceived as being intimidatory and a threat to press freedom. There is an increasing trend towards the intimidation of BBC journalists, who are working hard to hold politicians of all sides to account in the referendum debate.

Paul Holleran, NUJ Scottish organiser, said:

"People have the right to protest if they believe strongly about an issue, however protesters outside the BBC offices in Glasgow this weekend have demanded that journalists be sacked, for allegedly being biased in favour of the union. Journalists in Edinburgh and Aberdeen were abused over the weekend when simply turning up to report on events organised by both sides. Others were on the receiving end of a range of abuse and intolerance on social media, some of which has been logged and maybe reported to the police.
"We have also experienced a number of Labour MPs, accusing the corporation's most experienced and talented journalists of political bias against the Better Together campaign. This highlights the fact that people on both sides are accusing the BBC of bias.
"Robust debate is fine. Pointing out when journalists get their facts wrong is expected and welcomed. But NUJ members believe in a free press, a fair media, with journalists allowed to do their jobs free of intimidation. We hope the politicians and campaigners, and those who follow politics take this on board and act with a bit of maturity and understanding of the role of journalists in holding those in power to account.
"What is totally unacceptable is the use of threats of violence. The NUJ has history of acting on this type of behaviour and Police Scotland has been supportive and has intervened when we have previously pursued such action."

Tim Dawson, NUJ vice president, has blogged about the referendum:

"If those who consume our product care sufficiently about what we do to complain, we should welcome them – however they make us feel. Where an apology for bias or inaccuracy is appropriate, then that should be offered – and where we can mount a robust defence of our work, then we should make our case without fear."

Read the blog on Tim's website.

Tags: , scotland, vote, threats, intimidation, bullying, election, scottish referendum