My friend and former colleague on NewsnetScotland GA Ponsonby has published a book which, in exquisite detail, destroys the claim of our national broadcaster to have been neutral and unbiased in its coverage of Scottish politics – and particularly in its coverage of the referendum campaign. The book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the Scottish media, and for anyone who wants to reform it and make it democratically representative and accountable. GA has kindly allowed this blog to publish an extract from the book. Ordering details are at the end of this article. Buy it now!
Throughout the referendum most newspapers refused to back independence. Indeed almost all were vehemently opposed. The press gave far more sympathetic coverage to the No campaign than to its Yes rival. In short, the Scottish print media was biased.
In order to address this imbalance, the Yes movement created its own media. The internet saw an explosion of Yes leaning blogs and websites. An alternative narrative to that being pushed by the main stream media began to flow from these new web based outlets. As hitherto unreported information began to circulate amongst users of these pro-independence sites so the traditional media found itself being challenged.
Claims from the No campaign were debunked regularly. Lies were exposed. Stories that would have previously lain unreported began to be circulated online. Writers and commentators every bit as erudite and articulate as those whose faces graced the newspaper columns and TV studios, were offering a different viewpoint.
Scandals were exposed. On April 7th 2013, one online group, National Collective, revealed that the biggest donor to the official Better Together campaign was the head of a company that had once paid a convicted war criminal one million dollars. Ian Taylor was the chief executive of multinational company Vitol and had given the Better Together campaign half a million pounds following a meeting with its chair, Labour MP Alistair Darling. However after the donation was announced, it was revealed that Taylor’s company had once paid the notorious Serbian war criminal Arkan one million dollars
Arkan – real name Željko Ražnatović – was heavily involved in organised crime, and was indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for war crimes including ‘murder, wilful killing, rape and other inhumane acts’. He was alleged to have been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Bosnian Muslims and Kosovo Albanians. He was assassinated in Belgrade in January 2000.
Ian Taylor was Chief Executive of Vitol when Bob Finch, as Vitol Director, went to Belgrade in the late 1990s. In 2001 an investigation by The Observer newspaper established Finch had used Arkan as a ‘fixer’ after a controversial oil deal in the former Yugoslavia collapsed.
It also emerged that Taylor’s company had a track record involving fines and controversial deals in Iran, Iraq, Serbia and Libya. Vitol had been fined $17.5 million after pleading guilty in the USA to charges of grand larceny relating to allegations of sanctions busting and payments to officials in former dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime.
There was more. According to the Independent newspaper, the company had also avoided paying tax on billions of pounds of profits – with the blessing of HMRC. Taylor, who had become Chief Executive of Vitol in 1995, had previously made substantial donations to the Conservative party, and attended a private dinner with Prime Minister David Cameron at Downing Street in November 2011.
In September 2012, Labour MP John Mann, a member of the Treasury Select Committee, had accused Taylor’s company of “backing corrupt regimes”. Mann also described Mr Taylor’s donations to the Tory Party as ‘dirty money’.
The revelations about Taylor’s company were damaging to the Better Together campaign and hugely embarrassing for the Labour party. However the story was given only subdued coverage by BBC Scotland. It received nothing like the high-profile coverage previously given to baseless smears levelled against Alex Salmond.
The story grew and threatened to inflict significant damage on the No campaign when lawyer’s letters were sent on behalf of the Better Together backer to National Collective and several other online sites which had picked up the story. The letters threatened legal action. As a result, the National Collective website was closed down.
A statement posted on the site said:
“On the 9th April 2013, Lawyers – Collyer & Bristow acting on behalf of Vitol and multimillionaire and principal donor to ‘Better Together’ – Ian Taylor threatened legal action against the ‘National Collective’ claiming that it was grossly defamatory.”
A pro-independence web site had been forced to close down. It had been silenced. Despite this intimidation, BBC Scotland still refused to treat it as a major news item. Instead, in an interview on Newsnight Scotland later that evening, journalist Severin Carrell actually blamed the National Collective and the other sites for the situation.
According to Mr Carrell,
“[Independence] campaigners perhaps haven’t quite had the experience, knowledge, legal advice that may have prevented some of the problems they are now encountering.”
Had the site been pro-Union and the legal threats been made by someone who had given half a million pounds to the Yes campaign, then past experiences suggested BBC Scotland would have given the story top billing. Had the Yes campaign’s biggest donor headed a business that had avoided paying tax, had given a million dollars to a war criminal and been fined for breaking sanctions against Saddam Hussein, then the story would have saturated BBC Scotland news coverage.
The threat issued to several online sites was indicative of the growing unease with which those in the No campaign viewed the internet. It wasn’t just blogs and websites where the Yes community had grown. Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook were also witnessing massive pro-Yes referendum participation. A genuine pro-independence grassroots movement had emerged on the internet. It was a major source of concern for the No campaign.
When an argument cannot be defeated then the best way to nullify its effectiveness is to discredit those making it. There was a considerable amount of talent amongst pro-independence online activists. Some provided commentary, some news, some live broadcasts. Others were irreverent and satirical. It wasn’t just an online media evolution, it was a cultural evolution. It encompassed the arts and literature.
The internet’s open access meant that there were no filters applied. Sitting alongside the articulate and positive were those whose online contributions were abusive and offensive. Both sides of the referendum had people who posted offensive and obnoxious content on the web. For every poster who called Unionists traitors, there was one who called Nationalists Nazis. For every disgusting reference made about Nicola Sturgeon there was one made about Johann Lamont. Both Yes supporters and No supporters could be equally abusive – and were. No side had a monopoly on bad language, threats and god-awful vitriol.
But only one side was singled out by the media. A derogatory term was coined for Yes supporters. Anyone expressing online support for independence, or who challenged the orthodox view being promoted by Unionists, was branded a ‘Cybernat’. The term was believed to have been coined by former Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray. In November 2009 speaking in the Holyrood chamber, the MSP said:
“Back in May I asked Alex Salmond to get a grip of these ‘cybernats’ bloggers. At the time they were spreading rumours about me and other politicians as well. I think Alex Salmond has to come to parliament, apologise, and explain just exactly what has gone one.”
“I wish to see these anonymous blogs rooted out and got rid of.”
The claim that Alex Salmond was somehow responsible for people who posted messages on the internet would be a recurring theme of the independence referendum. Time and again Unionist politicians would issue statements denouncing internet abuse allegedly perpetrated by a Yes supporter, whilst claiming Salmond was somehow to blame. Equally disturbing posts from No supporters rarely, if ever, made the news headlines.
This was best demonstrated on May 1st, 2013 when a disturbing sounding story broke. A comedienne had apparently received death threats after making a few tepid jokes about the independence referendum. The story was broken by the Scotsman newspaper in the early hours of that day. In an article headlined, Susan Calman: Death threats for independence satire, the newspaper reported:
Comic Susan Calman has called for an end of “name-calling, swearing and death threats” marring the independence debate after her satirical contribution to a radio show triggered an onslaught of online abuse.
The alleged death threats followed an appearance on a BBC Radio 4 comedy show ‘The News Quiz’ in which the Scottish comedienne had poked fun at Yes Scotland and also lampooned First Minister Alex Salmond.
The article led to other headlines that day, with the death threat claim central to the reports. Newspapers portrayed the comedienne as a victim of ‘Nationalist’ intolerance and ‘cybernat’ hounding. Unionist politicians issued statements condemning the alleged threat and blaming SNP.
Labour MP Douglas Alexander issued a statement in which he attacked the so-called cybernats.
The Labour MP said:
“This truly appalling episode is just the latest example of the hate-filled outpouring of the so-called ‘cybernats’, whose characteristic is general intolerance to everybody and anybody who does not share their outlook.
How has Scotland – rightly proud of our openness and tolerance – arrived at a place where a comedian is smeared, bullied and even threatened for speaking out and making light of the pretensions of politicians?”
BBC Scotland picked up the story. It was covered that same evening by Newsnight Scotland. The programme played a clip of Ms Calman delivering her jokes on the radio programme. The clip was accompanied by some melodramatic claims regarding abuse she had received. According to presenter Gordon Brewer the perpetrators were all ‘Cybernats’.
In the clip, viewers heard the following:
Brewer: “It all began when the comedienne Susan Calman poked fun at the Yes campaign on a topical news quiz…”
A clip of Calman on the Radio 4 programme was then played, She was heard saying: “They’re not going to build a border. We’re going to keep the pound. We’ll still have the Royal Family. So I’m not sure what’s going on.” [Audience laughter]
Brewer: “That was enough to attract the full ire of some pro-independence campaigners who she says accused her of betrayal and racism towards her own people.”
The abusers, according to the BBC Scotland presenter, weren’t just cybernats, they were pro-independence campaigners, and it wasn’t the first time the derogatory term ‘cybernat’ had been used in the programme in order to attack Yes supporters. Speaking on an earlier edition former Labour party advisor Simon Pia had been allowed to launch a similar politically motivated attack.
“The cybernats have operated below the surface in Scottish politics for the last few years. It’s very nasty and abusive stuff.”
In a later programme former Labour MSP David Whitton said:
“Another thing [the SNP] has to do is to stop these kind of cybernat attacks on anybody who criticises them.”
Brewer himself had used similar language, saying once:
“What we have seen this week, to be fair, are senior people in the SNP saying to some of these commentators on the internet, cybernats as they are called, you know look, stop it.”
The cybernat term wasn’t restricted to guests and presenters on Newsnight Scotland. Debates in the House of Commons would also see use of the term by the BBC.
Journalists too were allowed free rein to level accusations. In 2012 speaking on the Shereen Nanjiani show on BBC Radio Scotland, journalist Magnus Gardham called for action over anonymous independence supporting “trolls” he claimed were responsible for spreading “hatred and bile” on the internet.
The former Daily Record reporter, who had just joined the Herald, said:
“In Scottish politics there is a huge problem with internet trolls who target journalists who are perceived to be critical of Scottish independence, who hide under a cloak of anonymity and spread bile and hatred and abuse and intimidation.
If a precedent can be set in this case which shows that it’s not acceptable and there are sanctions then I think that will be entirely healthy.”
It was clear that the BBC wasn’t shy in promoting, or in allowing to be promoted, the falsehood that the Yes campaign, and only the Yes campaign, was awash with abusive, intolerant nutcases spreading bile and vitriol across the internet. On the contrary, the corporation was more than happy to legitimise the term.
The ‘Calman Death Threat’ story was a godsend to the Scottish media. It helped sustain the anti-Yes ‘Cybernat’ campaign and was key to getting the issue onto the BBC again. But was there any truth to the news reports?
The Scotsman article had contained apparent quotes from Ms Calman, only one of which made mention of death threats:
“If we could stop the random name-calling, the swearing, the death threats (real or otherwise) then perhaps we could get somewhere. Bullying is not a way to stop people speaking out. Bullying is the last resort of those who don’t want to enter into a reasoned argument.”
It was from the comedienne’s blog. The blog had been published after her appearance on the radio programme. But the comment made no specific claim that she herself had received a death threat. Some people began to question whether death threats were received at all and asked the comedienne for evidence. Despite widespread media coverage and accusations against Yes campaigners, nobody could locate any evidence of a specific death threat having been sent to the comedienne.
Newsnet Scotland decided to do a bit of digging…
A member of the team contacted the Scotsman newspaper to ask what evidence they had uncovered. There was no reply. The member tried to contact the comedienne herself but failed. In the meantime her blog had been taken down.
However a question to her agent was acknowledged. The reply served only to confuse the situation further. Her client had been invited to appear on Newsnight Scotland to discuss the issue, but had turned down the invitation.
Vivienne Clore said:
“Newsnight Scotland invited her to appear on the show and she declined because she doesn’t want to make any further comment on the matter at the moment so I really am sorry but I cannot help you.”
Despite contacting the police and the procurator fiscal’s office, no evidence of any death threat could be found. Indeed no evidence confirming that Susan Calman had received any threat to her life was ever found.
The Scotsman newspaper responded to the lack of evidence by publishing a ‘cartoon’. It depicted Yes supporters as grotesque mutants marching with burning torches chanting ‘Susan Calman, Susan Calman’. In the background were caricatures of Alex Salmond, John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon. Clearly visible was a gallows, with a noose fashioned in the shape of an SNP logo.
The BBC wasn’t driving the ‘Cybernat’ agenda. That was being done by newspapers like the Daily Record, Herald and the Scotsman. But the broadcaster, by allowing its own presenters and guest pundits to throw the term around with abandon, was complicit in its spreading.
London Calling: How the BBC stole the Referendum can be ordered online at http://LondonCalling.scot