In the early hours of this morning, the popular former SNP blogger and Political Betting poster Stuart Dickson sent me an email alerting me to a 'behind-the-paywall' article, which revealed that Scotland does not receive a net subsidy from the London exchequer. I decided to post a very brief summary of the article on PB. The thread in question concerned Ron Paul, but there was nothing remotely unusual about posting something off-topic - the overwhelming majority of comments on PB are wildly off-topic, and in particular posts about off-topic newspaper articles of interest are extremely common. And it could hardly be claimed that the article I summarised was not of any interest, given that the CEBR's conclusions about Scotland's fiscal balance go to the very heart of one of the most important political debates of our time.
Predictably, several of PB's resident Nat-bashers (including among others Richard Dodd, Moniker of Monza, Chris g00 and "Devo Max", the latter of whom I strongly suspect to be another poster in disguise) started laying into me for having the temerity to suggest that an independent Scotland would be anything other than a basketcase. As I normally do when I have the time, I replied to all their comments and challenged them on some of their bogus arguments (although to be honest the word 'arguments' dignifies the whole thing a bit too much). But then this familiar pattern was brought to a shuddering halt by an extraordinary intervention from the site's owner, right-leaning Liberal Democrat Mike Smithson -
This is not a thread about Scotland and future thread-hopping comments will be deleted.
There will be plenty of threads on Scotland but this is not one of them.
Just to reiterate, the notion that off-topic comments or 'thread-hopping' (whatever that might mean) are not allowed on PB is a completely alien one, as can be demonstrated by the vast number of off-topic comments not relating to Scotland that continued to pass without censure on that very thread. But this absurd ruling was not entirely a bolt from the blue, as a number of the usual suspects from the Tory Herd (who of course delight in boring the rest of us with the off-topic subjects that fascinate them the most) have for the last few weeks been relentlessly whispering in Smithson's ear : "This can't go on, Mike. All this talk about Scotland is killing the site. Something must be done." Which of course is rather ironic, given that some of us have been pointing out to him for years what is really killing the site - the all-pervasive right-wing group-think, and endless fatuous thread-headers about non-topics such as "Edward" Miliband's "name-change". His decision about which of these concerns was more important to take heed of tells its own story.
However, given that Smithson had tried to give his imposition of censorship the semblance of logical justification by referring to "thread-hopping", I decided to take him at his word, and press him on whether a short list of other "thread-hopping" posts I'd noticed on the same thread would in future be subject to deletion -
"This is not a thread about Scotland and future thread-hopping comments will be deleted"
Does that constitute a ruling that this IS a thread about -
a) YouTube videos
b) YouGov polls on the NHS
c) Andrew Lansley
d) Cameroons and Blairites
f) Tim Montgomerie
g) Formula 1
h) Aero regulation
...and that 'thread-hopping' posts about those topics are all perfectly acceptable?
It seems so. Yet more consistency from the top.
Unsurprisingly, there was no direct response. However, an apologist for Smithson did try to justify the contradiction with the customary non-logic that "it's Mike's site and he can do what he likes". He also pointed out that this was not the first time a specific topic had been singled out for a ban - discussions of the Holocaust had also long been forbidden.
Well, that pretty much says it all, doesn't it? There are now just two banned topics on PB - Scotland and the Holocaust. And they have demonstrably been banned not because they are off-topic or "thread-hopping", but because Smithson and those whispering in his ear don't want to hear about them, for reasons of taste or prejudice.
But in truth, this is not really about Scotland in general. No, we can rest assured that the traditional excited posts from Aberdeenshire or Easter Ross about the forever imminent renaissance of the Scottish Tory party will remain very much welcome in PB World. This is about Smithson's dislike of SNP posters, and nothing else. We saw it today when his ruling was 'implemented' in the form of comments from the SNP's MalcolmG being deleted, but comments from those goading the Nat posters being left untouched. We saw it two years ago when two of the leading SNP posters, the aforementioned Mr Dickson and our very own Ezio, were banned seemingly for no reason whatsoever. When we tried to pin Smithson down on the reason for Stuart's ban, he just couldn't seem to get his story straight. First it was because Stuart frequently wrote about 'misleading' Scottish subsamples - but unfortunately it was easy enough to point out that Smithson had done exactly the same thing. Then it was because Stuart had repeatedly misunderstood "Smarkets" - really? "Misunderstanding" something is cause for a lifetime ban? No, clearly that didn't make sense either, so the next explanation was that Stuart wasn't contactable by email. Unfortunately, though, I had access to their email correspondence, and was able to demonstrate that Smithson's charge was a piece of nonsense. Last but not least, he fell back on the trusty old option of "the matter is closed".
Of course, it should also be pointed out that Smithson's own tendency to lash out angrily about the SNP on threads relating to other topics would firmly fall foul of today's ruling - if it was being implemented consistently. But it won't be. What we've seen today is nothing less than a selective 'constructive ban' on all pro-SNP posts, leaving Smithson's claim that his site is a cross-party forum utterly bereft of credibility. Oh, and in case you're wondering, his suggestion that there'll be plenty of dedicated Scottish threads which we can still comment on is meaningless - in normal times, you'd be lucky to get one Scottish thread every three months.
Which only leaves the question of how best to react to this indefensible near-blanket ban. It's sorely tempting to test the boundaries of it by seeing what would happen if I tried posting off-topic material about, for example, Plaid Cymru or Mebyon Kernow. But perhaps Ezio had it right all along - if PB can't be saved as an ecumenical forum, it's arguably better if the small number of us who don't subscribe to the site's group-think get as far away from it as possible, and stop giving it any unwarranted 'cross-party' credibility.
However, I do have one last post about PB up my sleeve - an eye-opening exchange from yesterday about the Welsh language. Stay tuned...