The media has made much of Jim Murphy, the Labour MP and pro unionist, being shouted down, heckled, sworn at and having had eggs thrown at him whilst promoting the No campaign in the forthcoming Scottish Independence referendum.
Mr Murphy describes the demonstrations as being “co- ordinated and sinister” and “driven through websites, Facebook and other social media.”
I have sympathy for Mr Murphy as addressing public meetings on contentious issues, where there is no effective control like this can be a huge challenge even for the most experienced speaker. It is therefore small wonder that others who feel that they might want to voice an opinion or ask a genuine question, tend to say nothing or not go at all.
Of course it would be better if such meetings could be effectively chaired, as does not appear to be the case with Mr Murphy’s meetings. But the truth is that chairing a public meeting where an orchestrated body of people are only interested in ensuring one side of an argument gets heard is daunting, especially for someone who lives locally – who wants to expose themselves to that or have their need for reasonable authority thrown back in their face?
It would appear that the Police will be asked to attend other meetings where Mr Murphy is being asked to speak as is increasingly happening in town and village halls up and down the country. This is an ominous trend in a nation that sees itself as the birthplace of free speech and democracy.
Public meetings ought to be a good vehicle for allowing people to discuss important issues that will affect them, but experience increasingly suggests that they rarely are. As a result, in my view these meetings will start to die out because there are few people who will want to put themselves through such an ordeal by fire, when there are other communications channels available to them.