It seems to me there are two different types of life lesson. There are the lessons you genuinely have to learn the hard way, and then there are the truths you kind of instinctively know from the start, but that are continuously reaffirmed by experience. This is a blogpost about two lessons - one of each type.
The first lesson is one that I learned when I was 7 or 8 years old. Every child that has ever been bullied at school has probably heard the same two clichés a million times - "if you just ignore them, they'll go away" and "all you have to do is tell a teacher, and they'll put a stop to it". And of course, when you're a child, if lots of people are telling you exactly the same thing, you believe it must be true. So you put the advice into practice, assuming that it's bound to work - and guess what? It doesn't. The teacher you confide in just goes through the motions by taking completely ineffective action, and if you raise the issue with them again, they shrug their shoulders because they've "already dealt with it". And ignoring the bullies has precisely the opposite effect from the one you're told to expect - they're actually emboldened by your silence and passivity.
Eventually you reach a strange but inescapable conclusion - that the function of the clichés is not to help you, but instead to pass the blame onto you for the things that are happening to you. If you're being persecuted, day in, day out, it's not the bullies' fault, and heaven forbid that it could be the fault of adults for failing to act - no no, it's your own fault for not taking the simple steps that everyone is telling you to take.
The second lesson is about independence - not about the independence of this country, but about independence of thought and action. In 2010, about two years after I started blogging, I was invited by Mick Fealty of Slugger O'Toole fame to a conference in Edinburgh about New Media and related matters. It turned out to be the one and only time I met some of the better known bloggers of the period, including Duncan Stephen, Caron Lindsay and James Mackenzie. The latter had recently given up his Two Doctors blog to join forces with Jeff Breslin and Malcolm Harvey in the group blog Better Nation. And, indeed, one of the recurring themes of the day was that the days of the solo blog were on the way out, and that the future of blogging belonged to collaborative efforts. I remember thinking that I fervently hoped that wasn't true, because to me, blogging was all about individual expression without being subject to editorial control or to less direct external pressures and influences.
And thankfully the predictions couldn't have been more wrong. At least as far as the pro-independence New Media in Scotland was concerned, the next decade belonged largely to solo bloggers, while group efforts like Better Nation generally either failed or didn't quite meet their initial promise. But nevertheless, even as a solo blogger there are constant attempts - some subtle, some less than subtle - to co-opt you into some kind of bigger 'machine'. For example, it's occasionally suggested that there should be some form of centralised funding for the New Media - that instead of each outlet seeking its own funding, it should instead have to apply for funds. I once went to a meeting where it was "decided" that in future none of us would publish blogposts mentioning other independence supporters without notifying the person first - and I thought "hang on, when did I agree to hand over editorial control of my blog to a majority vote of other bloggers?" An SNP press officer once asked me if it would be possible to get an article published on a certain high-profile English political website that I had written for before, and I said I'd give it a go, because I was an SNP supporter and of course I wanted to be helpful if I could. But it turned out that what he actually had in mind was that he would write a propaganda piece for me, and all I would do is put my name to it. Apart from anything else, it was appallingly badly written and I would have been deeply embarrassed if anyone had thought it was mine. As far as I can recall, I didn't reply to him again, and I simply submitted my own original piece to the website instead.
My strong instinct has always been to guard my independence jealously, and each time one of these episodes occurs, it just confirms that my instinct is right - because, more often than not, the "centralisation" and "collaboration" masterplans really turn out to be an exercise in gate-keeping or manipulation. They're ultimately about policing what you can and can't say, or straightforwardly putting words in your mouth.
Which brings me to the fallout from the relentless campaign of harassment I've been subjected to over the last few months by a former prolific commenter on this blog - namely Ross Anderson, aka "Scottish Skier". The bulk of the harassment has been invisible to readers, because it happened after I turned pre-moderation on, and for the most part I simply didn't let his comments through - but every single one of them landed in my inbox. It wasn't unusual to receive six or seven lengthy comments per day, many of them laced with extreme bitterness and presumptuous demands about how I should run this blog. It reminded me of the redundancy of the old advice about "ignore bullies and they'll go away", because even though Mr Anderson was screaming into the ether (nobody apart from me was even reading his comments and I wasn't responding to them), he simply didn't stop. I kept expecting him to get bored and to 'defect' to a different lucky blog, but no, he just carried on pointlessly bombarding my inbox for weeks. He was like a hurricane that didn't blow itself out. Eventually he worked out a way of forcing me to pay him some attention - he vexatiously demanded a partial refund of an ancient £20 donation that had long since been spent in precisely the way promised. I was recently left with little choice but to fully publish my side of the email exchange that ensued, because Mr Anderson cynically misrepresented that exchange in a number of comments on the Wee Ginger Dug blog.
And yes, that happened because Mr Anderson belatedly did what I had expected him to do several weeks earlier - he adopted another blog as his home. Almost immediately, though, some of my own readers became concerned at the extreme nature of the claims that Mr Anderson was making about me in comments on Wee Ginger Dug - they felt that my reputation was in danger of being seriously damaged and urged me to post a public response. Initially I was sceptical, but when I actually read the comments, I began to see their point. So I did publish a brief reply on Scot Goes Pop - and that prompted an email message from the author of WGD, Paul Kavanagh, who I was still on good terms with at the time. It was friendly enough, but I could tell he was unhappy that I had posted publicly and that he thought I should have spoken to him first. So, when the attacks from Mr Anderson kept coming, I messaged Paul and let him know as a matter of courtesy that I was going to have to post another response. I wasn't in any sense 'asking for permission' - nobody needs permission to respond to personal attacks made on them in a public space. But as Paul had been upset by my actions before, I wanted to ensure that I observed every possible courtesy this time around.
The reply I received startled me. Paul basically instructed me not to post a public reply, and said that he and his moderators would instead deal with Mr Anderson privately. He said that if I posted about Mr Anderson, it would simply provoke a retaliation, and make the moderation of Wee Ginger Dug an even more difficult task. Every instinct in my body told me that I shouldn't allow someone to give me instructions about the content of my own blog - but I had a high regard for Paul, and he has of course been extremely unwell over the last year. I didn't want to add to his problems, so I decided that, just this once, there was no harm in bending with the wind a little.
"No good deed goes unpunished", as the saying goes. It turned out that the instructions didn't end there. A few weeks later, Paul messaged me again, this time attempting to lay down the law about the Scot Goes Pop moderation policy. He effectively told me that, because the moderators on WGD had been protecting me, I was now honour-bound to give him similar protection by censoring the comments of "Independence for Scotland". He made clear that I should not only prevent any criticisms of himself, but also any criticisms of Mr Anderson, because that would make life easier for his moderators. This, it seemed to me, was a blatant attempt to manipulate me into subordinating the moderation policy of Scot Goes Pop to that of Wee Ginger Dug, and it just wasn't on. However, I was very unsure of how to deal with the situation, because I had been placed in an almost impossible position. I didn't reply for several days, and I used that time to take advice from friends and family, who agreed that there was no easy solution. Either I went along once again with what Paul wanted, in which case I was effectively surrendering editorial control of Scot Goes Pop, or I said no, in which case he was bound to react badly and that might destroy my relationship with him.
It was tempting just to pretend I'd never received the email in the first place, but that would have been the coward's way out. In the end I tried to navigate the minefield by posting to ask IFS to stop criticising Paul, but making it clear that I was not going to censor any criticisms of Mr Anderson. That seemed like a reasonable enough compromise - but Paul immediately phoned me up to tell me that I had made matters worse. He told me to delete the blogpost - an utterly extraordinary demand to make, and a sign that his attempts to control me were getting totally out of hand. I just laughed and told him that I would look ridiculous if I deleted a blogpost I had only just posted.
Mr Anderson then resumed his attacks on me in the comments section of Wee Ginger Dug the following day, with no sign of the fabled 'protection' from the moderators that had supposedly required a quid pro quo from me. This culminated in Paul sending me what I can only describe as a thoroughly inappropriate and extremely angry email. He squarely placed the blame on me for Mr Anderson's behaviour, which he suggested was contributing to him feeling unwell, and told me that he was "frankly disappointed" at my "poor judgement" - once again implying that I should have deferred to him on editorial matters. At that point, I realised that there was nothing to be gained from continuing to try to be diplomatic, so I made clear to Paul that his attempts to place the onus on third parties like myself to solve moderation problems on Wee Ginger Dug were completely ridiculous. I pointed out that he and his moderators have all the necessary tools at their disposal to deal with commenters who displease them (unlike my own, Paul's commenting platform allows him to ban commenters outright). Asking me to self-censor to stop his awkward squad of commenters from being 'triggered' by what I write was as pointless as it was needless, because in many cases they're simply 'triggered' by the existence of the Alba party and by the fact that there are bloggers out there who dare to write in support of it. I noted that WGD has become a safe haven for people to rant about anyone even vaguely associated with Alba - something which I had no complaint about, but there was no point in pretending it wasn't happening.
I told Paul that I was genuinely very, very sorry (and I am) that he was feeling so unwell and that he'd gone through so much, but that there was simply no need for him to lash out at me or to try to manipulate me in the way that he had. I stressed that I would not be adjusting the content of Scot Goes Pop, either above or below the line, to conveniently fit in with the moderation policy of another blog.
So this is yet another episode that has reinforced my ongoing belief that it's always best to insist upon blogging independence. When the paternal arm comes over your shoulder, there's usually an agenda behind it. In this case, the agenda seems to be about the synthetic notion that the pro-independence movement must be relentlessly "positive" (code for slavishly loyal to the SNP leadership) to win a referendum that as far as I can see is not actually taking place. This idea of "positivity" does not of course preclude vicious attacks on Alba, who are "transphobic bigots" hellbent on "distracting" us all from the non-existent referendum campaign. Right on cue today, we have yet another attack on Scot Goes Pop from Mr Anderson in the comments section of WGD (no sign of "protection" from the moderators thus far) which equates my support for Alba with "negativity", and attempts to prove using a dodgy chart worthy of the Lib Dems that I am losing readers because of it.
In case anyone is daft enough to take Mr Anderson's rather contrived propaganda seriously, there are four major flaws in it. Firstly, I have not been posting anything like as much since the spring for the simple reason that the election is over, so a drop in traffic is inevitable, and has always happened before at similar times of the electoral cycle. Secondly, the traffic figures he uses are not actually accurate figures, but are instead ball-park estimates taken from the website SimilarWeb, and which are miles out from the real numbers I can see for myself on Google Analytics. Thirdly, it's a bit bloody convenient that the only two pro-Alba websites he looks at are ones that have had fewer posts since the spring (myself and Wings). Even the most cursory look at the remarkable recent viewing figures for the Through a Scottish Prism channel on YouTube gives the lie to any idea that support for Alba repels visitors. And fourthly, even if it was actually true that being pro-Alba puts people off, here's the thing: I would still be pro-Alba anyway, because this is about principle rather than cynical calculation (admittedly that may be an alien concept for Mr Anderson).
Ladies and gentlemen, you're reading Scot Goes Pop, your fiercely independent pro-independence website. And fiercely independent is exactly how it's going to stay, no matter how inconvenient that may be to anyone else.