Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Does Better Together care about free speech?

I have been alarmed to discover that today, a website to which I am an occasional contributor - National Collective - has been temporarily taken down after threatened legal action.

National Collective is run by a number of artists and creative types who favour an independent Scotland. It is generally far more considered and temperate than many of the other expressions of pro-independence support. 

What it seems to have done to become the recipient of threats of litigation is to take information freely available in the public domain - most obviously in The Guardian and The Herald but also other daily newspapers - and put together a financial history of Mr Ian Taylor, the CEO of oil giant Vitol and a man who only last weekend went public with the announcement that he was donating £500,000 to Better Together.

Taylor has retaliated, oddly enough not by threatening the news media but in choosing National Collective as his target.  It's difficult to comprehend what he feels can be gained by this, given that he doesn't seem to want to challenge their sources. That, however, is not my concern. Neither am I particularly worried about the damage he may do to Better Together and to his own reputation.

As James McKenzie points out on Better Nation, this bullying of a group of artists essentially constitutes an "attempted censorship" made worse by the fact that "there are rumours of equivalent legal action against both Wings over Scotland and Berthan Pete".  Now, silencing by intimidation is not the kind of tactic I think Better Together should be even perceived as supporting, not least because many Liberal Democrats are counted among its activists.  It is also a large campaign group committed to a responsible democratic discussion on Scotland's constitutional future and therefore a lack of respect for democratic values shouldn't sit comfortably with its many supporters.

Free speech is paramount to the debate currently ensuing on Scotland's democratic future.  Those in both camps must realise and respect this.  Mr Taylor certainly doesn't, but what about Better Together?

It's too simplistic to judge organisations on the basis of their donors.  In recent years the SNP has taken sizable donations from Brian Souter and the Liberal Democrats from Michael Brown. It would be facile to present the SNP as homophobic or the Liberal Democrats as friends of fraudsters.  

However, what has been Better Together's response so far?  An article on their website, entitled "Smear and Fear" takes an ultra-defensive view - insisting that they "are happy to say is that Ian Taylor is a respected figure internationally" and blaming "allegations a nationalist blog a few days ago...[for] inaccurate reports".  

In coming down so firmly and completely on the side of their donor, Better Together is taking a huge gamble.  I'm happy to follow the lead of the evidence on this one, but am concerned about how closed minded Better Together seems to be.  There appears to be evidence from more than a mere Nationalist blog (which National Collective is not - there is a distinction between pro-independence and nationalism) that Ian Taylor's financial dealings are questionable to say the least. Now these may well be allegations, but isn't it best to make enquiries first? There are certainly some serious questions to be answered.

I'm actually quite concerned at the number of Liberal Democrats who appear to be happy to endorse the Better Together position unquestioningly.  I find it strange that when it comes to our own party, we'd go to some lengths to make our feelings known about unsavoury benefactors (i.e. we most definitely don't want them!). When it comes to Better Together, it seems anything goes. If Mr Taylor was to offer money to the Lib Dems I'd imagine there would be more of an outcry from within; I am genuinely surprised that more of my liberal friends in Better Together are not only refusing to speak out against the unsuitability of this donor, but are actively taking a defensive line. Certainly I've been astonished that there haven't been more of us defending National Collective's right to freedom of speech.

Better Together has not explicitly stated support for the line taken by Mr Taylor in silencing National Collective. What they do say, without apparent irony, is this: "this is too important an issue to have a campaign where people are afraid to have their say. We can’t go on like this. Scots deserve the debate to be better than this." Accepted.  So when will they give it to us?

Indeed, the debate surrounding the democratic future of our country is too important to be dominated by Ian Taylor, or to be characterised by either the kind of juvenile smearing contained within their own article or attempts to silence opponents.  That Taylor has seen fit to target National Collective rather than the more powerful national media, combined with the fact that to date Better Together has been uncritically supportive, suggests that the "No" campaign is quite happy to associate themselves with censorship and intimidation.

Of course, this may not in fact be the case.  Ian Taylor and Better Together are of course separate entities. Better Together may make a statement to the effect that it distances itself from Taylor's actions - something which is certainly likely if more of the campaign's supporters make a stand opposing Taylor's attempts at intimidation.  I hope so. If they fail to do so, the obvious conclusion to be drawn will be that Better Together cares less for free speech than it does Taylor's money (irrespective of from whence it came) -  with its democratic credentials being seriously and irreversibly compromised as a result.

Does Better Together care about free speech? I hope so. No doubt we'll soon find out. 


RevStu said...

Better Nation's post is weird. As well as attacking myself and Peter Bell for being "bullying" (based on what I don't know), it talks of "rumours" that we've also had legal threats.

As I've actually posted a scan of the solicitor's letter threatening the legal action on my site (and had done before BN published their post), I'm not sure how much more evidence they need.

Craig said...

Better Together have worked since the outset to silence any dissenting voices on their Facebook page. All it takes is a polite reminder that a YES vote isn't a vote for Salmond or the SNP and bang, the comment's gone and you're banned from adding any more. If we needed any more reasons to distrust a campaign whose biggest funders are a tax-dodging tory oilman and a top banker, there you have it. Thought crimes, no room for that in Better Together's world.

Unknown said...

I've posted a politely disapproving comment on the Better Together story -

Is the Political Editor of the Herald also part of the "nationalists' dirty tricks campaign"? -see today's Herald article on "controversial background of no campaign donor".

- and will be interested to see if it attracts further comments or replies.

Robert Blake said...

Ian Taylor is a special case, particularly given that one of the major forces of BetterTogether themselves decried Mr Taylor's own contributions as "blood money"

Linking Michael Brown to Brian Souter s wrong. Souter is an objectionable prick, true but, if Mr Brown is who I think he is then, if I remember correctly, he passed stolen money onto the LibDems. If I misremember the individual, then I apologise to Mr Brown. Mr Souter's money has, to the best of my knowledge, been obtained in legal enterprises.

I would love BetterTogether to engage in honest debate, but they do not. They countenance no criticism, not even accurate, factual criticism, and the campaign consists of scares like "50,000' jobs lost to defence and some how forgetting EU procurement rules when saying no contracts to Scottish yards.

It is not a campaign a democrat should be proud of

Maurice Taylor said...

Well written analytical piece, showing a balanced interpretation of events and the characters involved. In the interests of displaying a wide support for independence I will share this piece. Love it.

Andrew said...

RevStu - sorry, didn't see your post as I didn't realise your blog had moved! Will now add to my blog list. I'm very concerned that it's the likes of you, Peter and National Collective that are being targeted - seems utterly disgraceful to me. Will Better Together stand idly by while their principal donor makes a mockery of their claimed democratic credentials, and supposed appetite for open debate?

Craig - so I've gathered, although I try to visit Better Together's facebook page even less frequently than I visit the dentist.

Unknown - indeed, I don't see how the editors of The Herald or The Guardian could possibly be described as nationalists, never mind part of any "dirty tricks campaign". It seems to be desperate stuff from Better Together.

Robert- I wasn't really likening Souter to Brown - after all Souter has never done anything illegal. The point I was making is that every organisation from time to time takes gifts from unsavoury persons, knowingly or otherwise. I don't blame Better Together for this. But the way they have reacted since Taylor's financial activities have been questioned raises questions about them - at no point did the SNP or the Lib Dems unreservedly and completely back their donors. The Lib Dems acknowledged Brown's crimes and went to great lengths to affirm that they accepted the donation in good faith. BT on the other hand have firmly attached themselves to Taylor and seem to support his actions.

Of course BT don't want a genuinely honest,open debate - they've calculated that cynical opportunism will win the day. The problem is, as we saw with the No2AV campaign, they might be right.

Andrew said...

Thanks Maurice!

Anonymous said...

It's certainly worrying, Andrew.

I suspect scare tactics rather than a real threat to sue. The letter that the Rev Stu got, was only semi literate.

It's terrible publicity for Better Together though. Banning people like me for their Facebook page is one thing...a virtually unnoticeable form of censorship, but this is something which, I'm sure, will go viral.

Frankly I'm surprised at Labour wanting anything to do with this man or his money, if for no other reason than his very close ties to the Conservatives, and his massive donations to them over the years.

It gives truth to the allegations that Better Together is being funded by rich largely English Tories, with Darling doing the Tories' spade work for them.

Id endorse what Maurice said. It's a well written piece and I too will disseminate it in as much as I can.

Andrew said...

"Frankly I'm surprised at Labour wanting anything to do with this man or his money, if for no other reason than his very close ties to the Conservatives." Indeed. And the Liberal Democrats too. It very odd that the very people who could be expected to raise objections don't do so when Better Together is concerned.

Andy Myles said...

Well said Andrew!

Doug Daniel said...

"Of course BT don't want a genuinely honest,open debate - they've calculated that cynical opportunism will win the day. The problem is, as we saw with the No2AV campaign, they might be right."

Indeed, and in typical BetterTogether style, they accuse the Yes campaign of doing what they themselves are guilty of. Honest and open debate? There would barely be a need for a referendum if we had anything even resembling that.

I think there's an important distinction to be made between AV and independence, though. Nobody actually wanted AV, at least not before the referendum. Nobody has ever campaigned for it, nobody has set up a party to promote it, and ultimately it was seen by many as nothing more than a pathetic attempt by the Lib Dems to show they had gotten something that made it worth putting the Tories into power. Conversely, independence is something for which people have been campaigning for many decades, the party of government in Scotland was built on it as a founding principle and it's party of the identity of two of our other parties, and it's seen - by a large section of the electorate at least - as the culmination of years of voting for the SNP. Nobody voted Lib Dem to get AV, but people like me voted SNP to get independence.

With all that in mind, it will be a lot more difficult for the negative tactics used to spike the AV referendum to be successful this time around. Very few people really cared if they saw lies about AV, other than us politicos perhaps, and most of us only cared in an intellectual capacity. But lies spread about independence create a much more visceral reaction, and not one which is limited to politics nerds.

Finally, I'm of the opinion that, deep down, the majority of people are in favour of independence. They may not say they're a Yes voter, but their opposition is based on years of being told we CAN'T do it, rather than because they believe we SHOULDN'T do it. It's the old "I would love Scotland to be independent, BUT..." scenario. But just because these people believe we can't do it, it doesn't mean they don't share the annoyance of Yes voters at hearing Scotland being rubbished by BetterTogether. Ultimately, I think their relentless negativity will turn people off, as folk will begin to realise "hey, this is just getting ridiculous now, and if they're lying about THIS, who's to say they've not been lying about everything else?" I've already witnessed folk on Twitter - totally outside the usual political bubble - saying the fawning of Thatcher has pretty much cemented their Yes vote, or even that it's actually turned them into a Yes voter.

The important thing to remember is this: once somebody's eyes are opened up to the possibilities of independence, they don't close them again. People go from No, to undecided, to Yes; but they don't go from Yes, to undecided, to No.

(Oops, that became a bit of an epic...)

George Anderson said...

Good article. I appreciate the assessment of the situation in such a factual manner without any point scoring.

I do worry that the better together team seem focused on an anti-SNP stance instead of a wider fact based debate. I think they are making a big mistake assuming all of those interested in information regarding Independence are SNP voters.

If the funds are perceived as "dirty" then the motive may also be seen in that light.