Nicola Sturgeon has defended an SNP candidate accused of being part of a deliberate “smear campaign” after journalists were briefed with false rumours about an NHS nurse who challenged the First Minister in a TV debate.
NHS Lothian nurse Claire Austin challenged the First Minister over nurses’ pay during a live BBC leaders’ debate in Edinburgh on Sunday night.
In the key moment of the debate, Ms Austin told SNP leader that her salary was too little to live on, and claimed she had turned to a food bank to get by.
She challenged Ms Sturgeon to make an unannounced visit to an emergency ward to see the pressures on staff for herself, saying: “You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS.”
Journalists in the debate ‘spin room’ reported that SNP sources wrongly told them that Ms Austin was married to a Conservative councillor, fuelling rumours on social media and prompting a wave of online abuse.
Ms Austin had been pictured sitting next to a Tory councillor in the audience at a previous BBC Question Time programme in Edinburgh, and said she had been asked back after not being called on to ask a question.
Ms Cherry later posted an apology on twitter directed at Ms Austin, writing: “Sorry I was wrong about twitter rumours. Entirely right that your voice is heard.”
Asked during a campaign stop in Blairgowrie whether she backed her candidate, Ms Sturgeon said: “In terms of Jo Cherry, of course I have confidence.
“She made a mistake, an honest mistake, and she apologised for that. In terms of the wider social media reaction, I don’t think it’s acceptable to make judgements about somebody’s background.
“The nurse on the debate last night was absolutely entitled to raise the issue that she did and, as I said, she raised an issue that I think is one of the biggest in this campaign, the level and value of real wages, not just in the public sector but in the private sector.”
Launching her party’s general election manifesto, Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale also heaped pressure on the SNP over the controversy, claiming the nationalist reaction to being challenged over its record was to launch a “smear campaign”.
Ms Dugdale said: “They tried their usual dirty tricks. But it won’t work this time. Because more and more people are wise to the underhand ways of the SNP.
“So here’s an idea for Nicola Sturgeon: Stop the muck raking.”
And the Conservatives claimed Scottish Government minister Jeane Freeman had also briefed journalists on the rumour in the debate spin room.
Tory MSP Murdo Fraser said: “I was sitting alongside Joanna Cherry as she claimed on the BBC that the nurse was the wife of a Tory councillor. She was being urged to say so by the Scottish Government’s welfare minister Jeanne Freeman.
“It was a disgraceful episode and Nicola Sturgeon and her party should be thoroughly ashamed. This smear operation points to something endemic within the SNP.
“Its supporters talk over critics, not listen. And the nationalists will always try to play the man not the ball. This kind of behaviour is utterly unacceptable.”
Ms Cherry’s main rival in Edinburgh South West, Conservative candidate Miles Briggs, said: “It was deeply disappointing that Joanna Cherry chose to cast aspersions on Ms Austin’s character based on twitter rumours that were totally unfounded.
“It is entirely right that she apologised unreservedly but I hope this incident will act as a reminder to her to stick to addressing concerns about the SNP’s failing domestic record directly rather than criticising hard working public sector workers raising legitimate issues.
“Many voters will feel that Ms Cherry’s comments are another example of the SNP’s mask slipping and their alarming tendency to attack in a personal manner anyone who dares to question them and their record.”
The Scotsman attempted to contact Ms Austin but did not receive a response.