Former Scotland editor says she repeatedly experienced gendered abuse while doing her job
Sarah Smith, the BBC’s former Scotland editor, has said she feels relieved to have left the country after enduring years of misogynistic “bile and hatred” while covering Scottish politics.
Smith, the recently appointed North America editor for BBC News, said she repeatedly experienced gendered abuse while doing her job, which led her to significantly reduce her use of Twitter and to fear she had become a visible target.
Born and educated in Edinburgh, she said she believed much of the abuse came from nationalists because her father was John Smith, the UK Labour party leader who died in 1994. He was a notable critic of Scottish independence.
In remarks published by the Reuters Institute, Smith said: “He was a very well known politician, he was a unionist, people like to therefore assume that my politics must be the same as my father’s, despite me being, one, a different person, and him having been dead for 27 years.”
People would “roll their car windows down as they drive past me in the street to ask me ‘what fucking lies you’re going to be telling on TV tonight, you fucking lying bitch’,” she told Rhys Evans, a BBC Wales executive.
That “vitriolic attention” occurred routinely while she prepared for live broadcasts in public. Smith said she “pretty much stopped tweeting” because she feared attracting “shit I can live without”.
An experienced reporter for the BBC, 5 News and Channel 4 News, including a stint as US business correspondent, Smith was appointed as the corporation’s first Scotland editor in 2016, following the 2014 independence referendum. She also anchored current affairs programmes, including Sunday Politics.
Named as the BBC’s North America editor in November last year, succeeding Jon Sopel, Smith told Evans she was relieved to be leaving Scotland. In the US she would be “gloriously anonymous”.
“Nobody will have any idea who my father is. So the misogynistic idea that I can’t have any of my own thoughts anyway, or rise above my family connections to report impartially, will no longer be part of the discourse.”
Attacks on Smith escalated after she suggested during a live 10 O’Clock News broadcast in May 2020 that Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister, “enjoyed” being able to distinguish herself in combating the Covid pandemic. Sturgeon furiously denied that on Twitter, and said she found the Covid crisis stressful and unpleasant; Smith said her choice of words was a mistake.
She also wrongly reported that Alex Salmond had called on Sturgeon to resign over the mishandling of an official sexual misconduct investigation against him, and retracted that on Twitter.
Evans said Peter Smith, ITV News’s Scotland correspondent, and Ciaran Jenkins, who covers Scotland for Channel 4 News, were also regularly abused on social media for alleged bias, which appeared at times to be coordinated. “Absolutely horrendous” abuse came from unionists, Peter Smith said, but the majority was from independence supporters.
There have been a series of incidents in which BBC journalists have been abused or attacked. Three men were charged after Nick Watt, Newsnight’s political editor, was chased in the street by anti-lockdown protesters in June 2021.
A BBC spokesperson said: “The safety of our journalists is paramount and while we wouldn’t comment on individual cases, we have a range of measures in place to support our staff, both online and in person.
“No journalist should have to put up with the kind of abuse described by Sarah. There should be no place for it in journalism or any other aspect of public life.”
Jackie Baillie MSP for Dumbarton constituency, said: “Sarah Smith was incredibly brave to explain the hate and abuse she has faced. The current climate of abuse and intimidation of journalists and women in public life is despicable.
“The intervention today from James Dornan [SNP Glasgow] only goes to prove that Ms Smith was correct in her comments.
“This is a clear example of a male politician who believes that he understands the experiences women face better than they do. He must reflect on his words and act accordingly.”
Responding to Sarah Smith’s comments about walking away from the “bile, hatred and misogyny” in Scottish politics, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said: “The public are justifiably proud of the BBC and its global reputation for integrity and impartiality so knowing that one of their most prominent journalists felt compelled to leave the country due to what she described as “hatred and misogyny” is quite frankly disturbing.
“I was saddened but unsurprised to see that after Sarah spoke out she received another wave of nationalist abuse. If Nicola Sturgeon and Angus Robertson are serious about their commitment to public service broadcasting perhaps they should condemn this behaviour and agree to stop fanning anti-BBC sentiment within their movement.
“Sadly I suspect that as long as the broadcaster refuses to unquestioningly parrot nationalist nonsense, the SNP will always have a problem with the BBC”.
The SNP’s Cllr Jonathan McColl, MPs Martin Docherty Hughes and Brendan O’Hara and Dumbarton Democrat editor Bill Heaney.
Meanwhile, from media Goliath to David, Bill Heaney, editor of The Dumbarton Democrat, said: “I cannot but agree wholeheartedly with Sarah Smith and second what Alex Cole-Hamilton has to say about this.
“Our news platform was banned and boycotted by the SNP at local council and constituency level as soon as we showed we were prepared to stand up to them and ask the questions that mattered.
“Their two MPs for the area we cover in Argyll and Bute and West Dunbartonshire are Brendan O’Hara and Martin Docherty-Hughes who metaphorically slam the door in our faces.
“Cllr Jonathan McColl, the leader of the SNP administration on West Dunbartonshire Council, has smeared me with a completely untrue allegation that I assaulted two women and refuses to withdraw his remarks and apologise for them.
“I used to think it was because I was a Catholic that SNP politicians were reluctant to comment to me during the 60 years I have been in this game, but it’s clear now that anyone but anyone who disagrees with them on anything at all is persona non grata with them.
“Any questions we have, we are referred to the Freedom of Information route which takes weeks and sometimes even months to come up with answers which have been put through the wringer and spun by that time.”