On Sarah Wollaston’s naming and shaming in The Times of “very aggressive male bloggers”

by Stephen Tall on April 19, 2014

sarah wollastonBlogging is back in the headlines again today. Dr Sarah Wollaston, the feistily independent Conservative MP for Totnes, has hit back at those online critics who denounced her role in the trial of her fellow Tory, Nigel Evans, acquitted this week on all charges of sexual assault and one of rape.

In an interview with The Times, Dr Wollaston was keen to stress that she was in no way challenging the verdict in the case, adding that she empathised with Mr Evans and his ordeal. She confessed, however, that the fallout from the case had been “very difficult”, particularly in the online sphere. She singled out The Daily Telegraph writer Dan Hodges, the libertarian blog Guido Fawkes, and the Tory publisher and writer Iain Dale, saying that she had been reading their “really quite aggressive attacks” about her handling of the allegations.

So far as I can make out, Dr Wollaston did absolutely the right thing throughout the case. According to her own account, she heard allegations of a sexual assault, took them seriously, attempted to address them without involving the police (at the specific request of the individuals who approached her) and, only when that option had been closed off, did she then pass to the two men who contacted her the names of police officers so they could contact them to make formal complaints if they chose to do so.

That strikes me as impeccable due process, the kind you’d expect from a former GP with experience of sexual assault cases. She has nothing to reproach herself for.

But reproach herself she does because of what has been said about her by those she terms “very aggressive male bloggers”. Here Dr Wollaston loses me a bit. That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of “very aggressive male bloggers” – there are, as there are in lots of other areas of online activity. But, raw as I’m sure the past week has been for her, I’m not sure the case here stacks up.

The piece on the Guido Fawkes website – EXCLUSIVE: Evans Accuser Denies Witch-Hunt – is by the standards of that site a straight piece of reporting. On Dr Wollaston’s involvement, it notes that Nigel Evans “has expressed considerable anger” with her and quotes one of his accusers backing up her account (“At no time did Sarah put me under any pressure whatsoever”) and dismissing the suggestion she had an ‘ulterior motive’ (“I reject that idea entirely”). Yes, it concludes a bit snarkily that “Many of Wollaston’s colleagues disagree…”, but that’s quite tame and, however unfair, probably quite true.

As for Iain Dale, his ConservativeHome diary asserted that she needed to ask herself “some very searching questions”: “She no doubt felt she was exercising a duty of care towards the man who cried rape. She clearly believed his story, but today she must also be asking herself if she acted properly throughout this sorry saga.” This is the traditional columnist get-out clause – if there’s nothing specific you can think of that an individual did wrong, just say that it raises questions about their judgement. A week later Iain’s suggestion of what Dr Wollaston should have done instead was weak beyond belief: “I would have gone to the Chief Whip and trusted him to sort it.” Because obviously the Chief Whip is the best-qualified person to deal properly with allegations of sexual assault and rape against one of their colleagues. But, however ill-advised, it’s not a mean-spirited personal attack.

Dr Wollaston’s on stronger ground with Dan Hodgesblog-post in the Telegraph, ‘Nigel Evans has had his career ruined. That’s why you’re being criticised, Sarah Wollaston’. He concludes by saying she should extend the offer she made to the accusers – to resign as an MP if they felt she pressured them into going to the police – to Nigel Evans: “it’s his life that’s been ruined. Not theirs, Dr Wollaston. And certainly not yours.” Dan is a professional contrarian, but normally his brutal articles are fuelled by a searching logic. Not this one: it’s a cuttings smear, impure and simple.

So, of the three identified “very aggressive male bloggers”, one (the Guido Fawkes site) was neutral, one (Iain Dale) was silly, and one (Dan Hodges) fits the bill. That’s not much of a pattern. Actually the ‘blogosphere’ (how very 2009 that word seems) has been pretty fair-minded, not least because Dr Wollaston’s article in the Telegraph defending the integrity of her actions was so persuasive.

Her intervention has, though, prompted a Times editorial on blogging, praising sites such as LDV – “ConservativeHome, LabourList and LibDemVoice represent grassroots party members in powerful new ways” – before noting the downsides:

On the web, because there is little or no face-to-face accountability, anonymous individuals are often completely uncivilised. Some blog editors make no attempt to moderate the conversations that they host. Too often comment threads resemble argumentative sewers. One of the explanations for the worst examples of internet-based debate is said to be the dominance of men. Few of Britain’s main political bloggers are women. As traditional male only clubs close all over the country, the bloggers’ club remains unattractive to women, if not formally closed to them.

These are generally fair observations, but permit me to interject a couple of words in praise of LibDemVoice here.

We were one of the first mainstream political blogs to adopt an active comment moderation policy, way back in January 2010. Indeed, our volunteer editorial team goes to lengths I often regard as verging on the absurd to individually moderate comments, trying where possible to write to those who’ve over-stepped the mark and explain (once again) our very simple policy: be polite, be on-topic, be who you say you are.

Secondly, though being a 100% volunteer-run site often means our efforts are a bit more home-spun than those of our well-funded and professionally-staffed ‘rivals’, we benefit in other ways, not least the diversity of our team. Four of our 10 volunteer team are women, including my co-editor Caron Lindsay. And, as independent research showed last year, LibDemVoice is one of the least London-centric blogs around.

So my thanks to them – and to you, our readers and commenters – for showing that political blogs don’t have to be angry and don’t have to be male and don’t have to be part of the Westminster bubble to succeed. Happy Easter weekend!

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.