Preemptive strike? Tweet from Better Together head before our article on Ian Taylor was published.
On Tuesday 9th April, lawyers acting on behalf of the multi-millionaire oil-trader and principal Better Together donor Ian Taylor, and the world’s largest oil Trading company Vitol Group, attempted to silence National Collective through threatened legal action. The following is our side of the story up to this point.
This is a story that should worry all Scots who wish the referendum campaign to be conducted in an open and democratic manner. Since launching in 2011, we have prided ourselves on running a positive, thoughtful and self-critical campaign, and have hoped that, in our own small way, we have improved the independence debate.
Our main focus has been on imagining a better Scotland. But any campaign for change is also a campaign against the status quo, and that requires a degree of criticism – and so, when necessary, we have been critical of the Better Together campaign.
On Sunday 7th April, Better Together revealed the details of those who donated £1.1 million to their campaign. The Sunday Herald provided a platform for Ian Taylor, who donated £500,000 of that money, to explain why he chose to back Better Together to such a degree despite not being eligible to vote in next year’s referendum.
We were confused. Nobody in the press seemed to be expressing any concern over Taylor’s background, despite a series of press reports linking Vitol, the company which Taylor served as CEO, to several ‘scandals’. And so our intrepid reporter Michael Gray (a 21 year old student), through careful use of Google, collated a series of stories already in the public domain, and in doing so challenged Better Together over the source of much of their funding. If we can be self-congratulatory for just a second, it was a fine example of citizen journalism.
The reports we raised were serious, and we did not publish them brazenly or without due care. Taylor’s company have been accused of giving $ 1 million to a Serbian Paramilitary leader, of bribing Saddam Hussein’s government and of tax avoidance, amongst others. All of these stories had been sourced and had been in the public domain for several years. We simply, in response to Taylor’s piece in the Sunday Herald, compiled them and asked Better Together to respond.
And so we were shocked to receive a letter from Mr. Taylor’s lawyers accusing us of defamation, and threatening two of our members, Ross Colquhoun and Michael Gray, with legal action if we did not remove the article immediately, publish an apology and agree to never to publish the material again.
We took this threat seriously, of course. Ian Taylor is a rich and powerful man and the courts are often a rich man’s playground. Out of fear of provoking further action, we were forced to become silent. We sought legal advice. We went through the original article with a fine tooth comb to check if, in fact, there was any basis in the claim of defamation.
We stand by Michael Gray’s article. Everything in the article was based on reliable news sources and, while we do not have the resources of the mainstream press or journalistic training, the piece was put together with due care and caution. The Herald received a similar legal threat and refused to back down, as did Wings Over Scotland after picking up the story.
Our legal advice was to remove the article in question while we prepared a response. Doing so would be in no way an admission of guilt or wrongdoing, but an acknowledgement that we were up against powerful forces with which we cannot compete financially. Yet there was an important principle at stake here – the principle that ordinary citizens should be able to question the powerful in society. We felt uneasy about the prospect of pulling the article, even temporarily, and continuing as normal. We may only be a humble group of activists, writers and artists, but to appear to be backing down felt too much like submission and displayed a lack of solidarity with Michael. If his voice could not be heard, then neither should any of ours.
For this reason, and for the reasons documented here, on Wednesday the 10th of April we took the very difficult decision of removing our entire website on temporary basis while we sought further advice. That morning, our initial story had been covered by both The Herald and The Daily Record. A further piece published online by The Scotsman that day included a warning from Vitol about legal action to ‘correct inaccuracies’ and ‘prevent further publication’.
By threatening legal action, Mr. Taylor’s lawyers hoped that this information could be kept from the public domain. But we were not attacking him personally. This was not the gutter press. This was information in the public interest. It matters how these campaigns are funded, which is why we repeatedly asked Better Together to comment. Lots of other people did, too. It was not an unreasonable demand considering Douglas Alexander, not our biggest fan, had previously raised similar questions over Taylor’s relationship with Downing Street. It was Labour MP and Treasury Select Committee John Mann who first described Mr. Taylor’s political donations as ‘dirty money’. (albeit Mr Taylor does not consider there to be anything improper about his political donations)
Yet we were met with silence. When we asked questions on Better Together’s Facebook page, the comments were marked as ‘spam’, and so could not be viewed by the public. It’s not the first time the No campaign have preferred to hide from us than engage – only a few weeks ago, Better Together tried to pull a film promoted by National Collective from YouTube, only for this to spectacularly backfire and go viral.
On Monday 8th, our story had received only a small mention in The Guardian, buried at the foot of another article. But we persisted. Within 3 days of publishing, our original article had been viewed 25,000 times, shared on twitter over 900 times and receiving over 3000 facebook likes. Momentum was growing behind our concerns, and yet Better Together refused to respond to us. But our persistence paid off. By Wednesday, the story had made both The Herald and The Record, and SNP Defence spokesman Angus Robertson had begun questioning Better Together over Vitol’s links with Serbian paramilitary Arkan. The information presented when Arkan was indicted to the International Criminal Court is too vile to discuss in detail.
After our story made the national press, many supporters of National Collective expressed concern over our silence – we’d had a serious breakthrough, so why had we not commented? When we replaced our website with a notice reading ‘Not for Publication’, many looked at Vitol’s warning in The Scotsman and correctly guessed that we had received a warning from lawyers.
Later that day we released a statement from our lawyer Aamer Anwar stating that our ‘website is offline only as a temporary measure for a few days. A detailed and robust response will be issued early next week along with further questions for the Better Together campaign.’ The response was an outpouring of sympathy which we found overwhelming. Donations flooded into our campaign fund without any request on our behalf. Kenny Farquharson, Deputy Editor of Scotland on Sunday, expressed his support, tweeting that ‘I hope the young pups at @WeAreNational overcome their legal difficulties soon. I’m a fan of much of what they do on#indyref.’ Euan McColm wrote that we had been ‘so far, among the most interesting and positive contributors to the campaign’. Kate Higgins, writing over at Bella Caledonia, gave great praise for the work we’d done. Support came in from, amongst others, musician Stuart Braithwaite, writer Alan Bissett, and several MSPs, as well as hundreds of ordinary people from both sides of the debate.
Meanwhile Better Together had suddenly taken an active interest in our group. Staffers Rob Shorthouse and Blair MacDougall put out a coordinated tweet mocking us prior to our statement being released. Better Together, who had been notably silent over the issue for several days, then responded by releasing a frankly bizarre statement accusing us of being part of a ‘co-ordinated dirty-tricks campaign’. This was only the beginning of a series of diversions manufactured by Better Together, all of which is covered in this rebuttal document ‘here’.
During a stressful time, this statement was a welcome piece of comic relief. Blair McDougall continued this line of attack on Scotland Tonight that evening, insinuating that this campaign was orchestrated by the SNP with Alex Salmond at the head. We can only speculate as to whether Better Together believed that Michael Gray’s article had been planted or encouraged by the SNP. For the record, Michael is not, and never has been, a member of any political party and the SNP and Yes Scotland were completely unaware that we were running the piece on Ian Taylor prior to its publication. It’s nice that Better Together are so worried by us that they’ll make this stuff up.
On the same night, Severin Carrell, the Guardian’s Scotland correspondent, discussed the disappearance of National Collective on Newsnight Scotland. When asked by interviewer Gordon Brewer if it might not be in the political interests of the No campaign for it to appear to be taking elements of the Yes campaign to court, Carrell said ‘No, it won’t play well at all. It’s certainly going to fuel the sense of outrage in their opponents and it’s going to start to put them on the back foot. I suspect, especially for the Better Together campaign, there’s rather a bit more to come on this one’.
Despite attempts to paint this as a smear campaign, the story refused to disappear. As well as ourselves, legal threats were sent to The Herald as well as other pro-independence websites. Robbie Dinwoodie continued to cover the story for The Herald on Thursday, and writing on Friday of the silence from Alistair Darling and Douglas Alexander over the matter.
While Darling and Alexander were still silent by Friday, Better Together continued to attempt to smear the independence movement. The Sun covered Better Together’s claims of ‘dirty tricks’, where the evidence presented for this widespread conspiracy and sabotage was a single facebook post and an abusive form returned to the Better Together office. They sounded rattled. The Sun couldn’t resist mocking the No campaign, stating ‘if you really want to get into conspiracy theory territory, you could even start to wonder if the whole thing is a fiendish plot by Better Together to smear their opponents’. The attempt to accuse the independence movement of a coordinated smear campaign, while in fact smearing us all, seemed a classic case of psychological projection.
Meanwhile, the story rumbled on. On Saturday, Alistair Darling finally broke his silence, welcoming the support from Mr. Taylor and indicating that the donation would not be returned. The same day, senior Labour MSP Ken McIntosh conceded he had no knowledge of the situation. At the same time, in a classic case of the Streisand effect, people had dug deeper into Vitol’s history and uncovered allegations of questionable business practices. We will report on this in due course.
By Sunday the 14th, former Labour First Minister Henry McLeish entered the debate, telling The Scotland on Sunday that prominent politicians behind the No campaign had to ‘respond to legitimate questions’, and that ‘Labour has to be clear about whether this is the type of finance we want in the campaign’. Yet, when politicians from across the anti-independence parties were pushed for answers, they responded with silence.
We wish that we did not have to discuss this. While campaign funding is important, it’s also a minority interest and discussing it is certainly not why we launched National Collective. The accusations of a smear campaign put forward by Better Together (which, ironically, appears in every sense a smear campaign) have been in poor taste and Scotland deserves a better debate.
We look forward to returning to normal and working towards a Scotland where one in four children do not grow up in poverty. However, we are extremely concerned with how the debate has gone since we published our original article on Ian Taylor. Our website has been the subject of very serious threats in an attempt to silence and stifle debate, and while the influence of big money over politics is not new, our questions remain unanswered. We are very lucky to have been able to access the advice of well qualified legal counsel Aamer Anwar, who gave time and support completely free of charge. Other citizen journalists without these support networks would likely have been silenced.
This demonstrates the power of a platform such as National Collective. Thanks to careful research, an effective online presence and the support of the wider movement, we’ve forced an important issue into the debate, and Better Together can ignore us no more. This is a moment for all supporters of our campaign and all those who care about Scotland’s future to unite behind citizen journalism.
We know that Yes Scotland will reject any large donations from outside of Scotland, and we hope that they would also reject any donation from any individual or group with as questionable a history as Ian Taylor. If they did accept such a donation, we would ask that they return it. To the supporters of Better Together we ask – what price is Union for you?
What next? People on both sides of the debate have called for Better Together to return this donation. We are backing this call, and hope that our partners in the Yes movement will join us. Today we launch this petition to call for Better Together to answer questions about its funding. We are contacting Better Together, as well as their supporting parties, to ask the following questions, and will publish their answers if and when we receive a response.
- Do Better Together believe it is good practice to accept a large donation from Ian Taylor in light of the concerns raised by National Collective and others over the business practices of Vitol?
- Do Better Together believe it is acceptable to accept a large donation from an individual who is not eligible to vote in the independence referendum?
- Do Better Together believe that their principal donor taking legal action against their political opponents is in the spirit of a fair and open debate?
There are bigger questions raised here for another day. We’ve asked questions over the hostility of rich elites to independence before. While the continued ability of rich, powerful men to intimidate ordinary citizens may not disappear on independence day, there is a discussion to be had about how we empower ordinary Scottish citizens and end the domineering influence of the powerful over politics. We hope you’ll join us in that discussion.
But for now, let us leave with this. We suspect that Mr. Taylor never intends to take us to court. To do so would simply raise the profile of a story he evidently wants buried. And if he did, both Michael Gray and Ross Colquhoun would go to court if it would clear the path for a fairer and more equal Scotland. And they would not be alone. If, Mr. Taylor, you do intend to continue with legal action, make sure that you do not only single out Michael and Ross. Come for all of us.
We are National Collective.