In politics, abortion is usually described as a ‘cross party’ or ‘conscience’ issue. It means that MPs or MSPs are not usually whipped to support a ‘party line’ and it’s accepted that people have sincerely held views on both sides of the issue. SNP members are no different in their range of views. John Mason MSP for Glasgow Shettleston favours lower abortion time limits while his party colleague Tommy Sheppard, MP for Edinburgh East, “fundamentally believes in a woman’s right to choose” to have an abortion.
This week, both men were strongly criticised after visiting abortion vigils.
Mr Mason said that he had visited a vigil at the Queen Elizabeth Maternity Hospital, Glasgow. He said that the vigil was peaceful and, in a letter to constituent, that it did not “harass anyone, or cause alarm or distress.” He also said: “I take your point that abortion services are completely legal, however, I would have thought they are seldom ‘essential’ or ‘vital’”.
Mr Sheppard also visited a vigil, at Edinburgh’s Chalmers abortion clinic. He posted a selfie to his Twitter account with a group of young women holding signs. The signs included “Bye Baby” and “I had an abortion. Yay Woo.” Twitter reaction was mostly negative. Some users noted it was baby loss awareness week and others described the signs as “heartbreaking” or in “very poor taste” After this event, and being fair to Mr Sheppard, he later apologised to constituents and removed the social media posts.
Mr Mason’s visit was covered in The Herald, The Scotsman, The Scottish Sun and The Daily Record newspapers. Each paper took a similar, negative, approach. Mr Mason was said to have ‘admitted’ that he’d been to a vigil. The Scottish Sun headlined Mr Mason’s beliefs as ‘deeply worrying’. The articles include quotes from the same people supporting a ban on vigils and criticising Mr Mason.
Mr Sheppard’s visit to a vigil was not covered by The Herald, The Scotsman, The Scottish Sun or The Daily Record.
The Edinburgh Live website did see Mr Sheppard’s Twitter picture but created a post using a different photograph and did not use the selfie which Mr Sheppard himself later described as “flippant, insensitive and offensive.” Edinburgh Live has previously published misleading pictures relating to vigils
Media organisations are entitled to be partisan, to give their own opinion and to campaign. The approach of the Herald, Scotsman, Scottish Sun, Edinburgh Live and Daily Record to these incidents is a good example of this and a rare example of unity from organisations which are normally fiercely competitive.
Newspapers also have the right to choose which pieces of information they publish and, in this case, each relied on very similar sources and quotes opposing Mr Mason. To balance their articles, none of the organisations published any comment in support of his stance.
The press must, of course, take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information. The Daily Record has a history of publishing incorrect articles or using misleading pictures about vigils in Scotland.
Each newspaper has an active Twitter account which, we assume, monitors the Twitter output of senior Scottish politicians. A trainee report at the Edinburgh Live website spotted it soon after publication. It is not known why a gaffe by Mr Sheppard who, at the time, was Shadow SNP Leader of the House of Commons, was not picked up and reported on.