Two senior Conservative councillors, two separate anti-SNP troll accounts – one named after a character on a popular Netflix regency drama – and a local council administration already teetering on the edge of collapse.
Bridgerton may have been a big hit with viewers during lockdown but if covering local politics teaches you anything, it is that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
And so it was when Angus Council’s children and learning convener, Derek Wann, finally confessed – after no fewer than three outright denials – that he was in fact the man behind the (Lady Whistledown) AngusFreeofSNP account.
The now-deleted profile, which shared the nom-de-plume of an anonymous newsletter columnist on Bridgerton, had been used to dish out targeted abuse at local politicians and content described by opposition councillors as “misogynistic and transphobic”.
Mr Wann, who represents Arbroath East and Lunan on Angus Council, was first linked to Lady Whistledown profile by eagle-eyed users of the Facebook community page Flatpack Angus after it tweeted – in a departure from its usual content – the words “my comments” and a link to a council press release where only he was quoted.
He had shared the same press release on his own Facebook page 15 minutes earlier.
Mr Wann told us he was first contacted about Lady Whistledown tweeting a link to the press release after Flatpack Angus shared a screenshot on its page at 10.08pm on June 21 – nearly six hours after the original tweet went live.
He initially claimed he did not receive messages about the post until the following morning.
Lady Whistledown tweeted another link to the Angus Council website with the caption “My comments” 31 minutes after Flatpack Angus’ post, at 10.39pm, this time to a story quoting communities convener Mark Salmond.
Mr Wann has never explained why he tweeted another link to the Angus Council website and whether this was done as a direct result of the Flatpack Angus post.
He claimed he had discussed with Mr Salmond whether he had been the victim of some sort of vendetta but the communities convener could not be reached for comment to confirm this conversation took place.
When we contacted Mr Wann on the morning of June 22, he dismissed as “absolute rubbish” any suggestion he was involved in running the (Lady Whistledown) AngusFreeofSNP profile, which featured a profile picture of Marilyn Monroe.
However, our analysis of social media posts shared by Lady Whistledown over a number of months found striking resemblances to content on the public profiles of Mr Wann, a one-time General Election candidate for the Scottish Conservatives.
We found the only time the profile, which, like Mr Wann’s, typically featured tweets posted using the Twitter for iPad app, had ever used the phrase ‘my comments’ was on June 21 in reference to those two posts.
We also uncovered a pair of similarly worded updates hitting out at Labour’s Scottish Parliament election candidate Graeme McKenzie, who was criticised for posting campaign materials in the wrong Angus constituency.
On April 26 at 2.11pm, before the story appeared in the press and in what appears to be the first online reference to the gaffe, Lady Whistledown wrote to the account’s 115 followers: “Ouch – does the labour candidate really think Forfar is in Angus South?
“How could anyone support a candidate that is leafleting the wrong town. Parachuted in.”
Two minutes later, Mr Wann, who did not follow the account and told us he was unaware of its content, published on his own Facebook: “Labour candidate for Angus South is leafleting Forfar – when you parachute a candidate in, you surely provide them with a geography lesson.
“How can anyone support locally a candidate that doesn’t even leaflet in the right town?”
We were also contacted by readers who discovered that the final two digits of the mobile phone number registered to the Lady Whistledown Twitter account matched the final two digits of Mr Wann’s own phone number.
It has been reported Mr Wann deleted the account an hour after being contacted by The National for an explanation.
We can reveal that on June 24, the day we broke the story that Mr Wann had finally confessed, he initially claimed to have looked through the first 20 to 30 contacts in his phone and found four matches to the final two digits registered to Lady Whistledown.
Mr Wann issued a statement through the Scottish Conservatives just over an hour later taking responsibility for the account and apologising for his actions.
It is understood this followed inquiries by the Scottish Conservatives after we approached the party for comment on a string of posts where Mr Wann anonymously criticised Douglas Ross’ leadership during the Scottish Parliament election campaign.
Mr Wann said: “I apologise sincerely for how I have handled this matter. My actions were unacceptable. I have now provided the party with the relevant facts so they can conduct an investigation.”
A Scottish Conservative spokesman confirmed the party “immediately launched an investigation into this matter after new information came to light” and it is understood party bosses could yet take further action.
We reported how the revelation had left the administration on Angus Council on the verge of collapse, with both the ruling group and Douglas Ross facing pressure to immediately sack Mr Wann.
A council in turmoil
The group had already faced a bitter dispute over the decision to allow disgraced councillor Richard Moore to return to the fold so it could hang onto power following the departure of Ben Lawrie and Lois Speed.
Mr Moore was previously suspended for three months after inappropriate conduct towards four women, including Ms Speed.
With the council already in turmoil, we were tipped off that a second administration member may also be running an anonymous anti-SNP troll account on social media.
Some of the content on the Angus Against the SNP Facebook page had already been removed but we were able to build up a picture from the remaining posts and some that we were able to recover from the account.
It included a newspaper clipping of a story about Angus SNP branches being ordered to return Covid business support grants they should never have been paid.
We found that an image had been shared on the Angus Against the SNP Facebook page on April 2 before an identical clipping was shared on Mr Davy’s own councillor page three days later.
Mr Davy, like the rest of the Angus Council administration group, could not be reached by journalists for some time following our Lady Whistledown story.
After being approached by us for comment, a Scottish Conservative spokesman confirmed Mr Davy had “referred himself to the party and the page’s content is being looked at”.
Mr Davy then commented: “I was involved in creating a cross-party platform to scrutinise the SNP in Angus. I’ve referred all relevant details to the party.”
Why it matters
The content remaining on Braden Davy’s Angus Against the SNP page, and what we were able to recover, was not as vitriolic as the posts shared on Derek Wann’s secret Twitter account.
The Lady Whistledown profile was used to post disparaging comments about the appearance of prominent female politicians, mock Dundee’s tragic record on drug deaths and argue with members of the public who challenged Mr Wann on Twitter.
Posts were frequently aimed at the SNP, with first minister Nicola Sturgeon referred to in one tweet as “the Bute House golem” and another, shared by the account in reference to an activist being bitten by a dog, stating: “Dogs know a wrongun”.
In another, responding to Brechin Community Council chairwoman Jill Scott sharing cycling routes in Angus, Mr Wann used the cloak of anonymity to ask: “Would anyone want to cycle through Brechin?”
He also used the profile to respond to members of the public who reached out to his council Twitter account in a more aggressive and insulting manner than would likely be permitted under the councillor’s code of conduct.
In one tweet following May’s Scottish Parliament election, Mr Wann appeared to poke fun at Dundee’s drug deaths crisis, writing: “SNP hold Dundee City West (62% of the vote for Joe FitzPatrick).
“He had to resign as Drugs Minister over rising deaths issue and his vote still increased 4% – does this show that there is a bigger drug issues in the city than we thought?”
In a tweet on May 7, the day after the election, Mr Wann responded to a question over whether the party would have performed better under Michelle Ballantyne – who quit the Conservatives to lead Reform UK Scotland.
He wrote: “Not sure Michelle would fare much better, in fact I cannot see any of the current stock or wannabes any use – need to look further afield for a leader.”
Mr Wann also retweeted a post on May 3, stating: “I would love to know who it is that’s running the Scottish Tories’ Holyrood campaign. Absolutely woeful.”
Despite the account no longer being accessible by Twitter itself, archives for many web pages, including social media accounts, are stored online, so a record of thousands of the profile’s tweets remain available to the public.
While Braden Davy’s troll account may be less vitriolic towards political rivals of the Angus Conservatives than Mr Wann’s, he could now be subject to police action.
Police Scotland has been “asked to consider” his social media activity after he used the Angus Against the SNP page to secretly coach members of the public to “tactically vote” for him in May’s election.
The Scottish Government introduced new rules this year that mean all digital election campaign material in Scotland – paid or unpaid – must carry an “imprint” stating who is promoting it and who they are promoting it for.
When campaign material is being used to promote a candidate, rather than a party or campaigner, the responsibility for enforcing the rules falls to Police Scotland.
We revealed how in a post on April 15 titled “tactical voting alert”, Mr Davy – who stood for the Conservatives in Angus North and Mearns – told members of the public they should “act together” to vote for him and oust SNP minister Mairi Gougeon.
“If we all act together we can vote her out,” he wrote. “Tactically vote with your constituency ballot for Braden Davy to stop the SNP.”
In a further update on April 18 he told people living in Angus South to vote for his Conservative colleague Maurice Golden to defeat SNP minister Graeme Dey but again made no reference to who was really running the page.
A spokesman for Police Scotland confirmed officers are now looking into the matter but inquiries remain at an early stage.
The spokesman said: “We can confirm officers have been asked to consider the circumstances relating to online activity on a social media account.
“This is ongoing and at an early stage.”
What happens next
Mr Davy quit as economic development spokesman on Angus Council and resigned from the ruling group after being told to step down at a meeting of senior councillors on Thursday afternoon.
Derek Wann has also been asked to quit his role as children and learning convener but has not yet confirmed whether he will do so or if he will follow the example of Mr Davy by also stepping down from the administration.
Both were initially given until July 5 to respond to the request by council leader David Fairweather, who said it was his “wish and want” that they stay on in the ruling group.
Mr Davy said he had been “uncomfortable” with the administration’s decision making “for some time”, particularly around allowing Richard Moore to return.
“I haven’t taken part in administration meetings for that reason since, and have decided to stand down from the group,” Mr Davy said.
“I will continue to represent the people of Forfar.”
SNP group leader Beth Whiteside would not speculate on whether opposition councillors could look to form their own ruling group if Mr Wann is dropped but said the administration is now on a “shoogly peg”.
Ms Whiteside’s SNP group plan to hold an informal meeting with other councillors – including former administration members Ben Lawrie and Lois Speed – on Monday evening to discuss the resignation of Mr Davy.
Mr Lawrie has suggested he would be interested in forming a “unity cabinet” to help see the council through the rest of the Covid crisis until next year’s Local Government elections, although it is not yet clear how many other members would agree.