Calls for Better Together to withdraw ‘highly irresponsible’ smear claims

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   By a Newsnet reporter 

The anti-independence Better Together campaign has been accused of using “highly irresponsible” language and has been urged to withdraw an online article after it made a series of sweeping accusations against the SNP and Yes Scotland.

The calls follow an online statement published by the pro-Union group in which it claimed controversial newspaper reports surrounding its biggest donor were the result of “a co-ordinated dirty-tricks campaign by the nationalists”.

In the statement published yesterday [Wednesday], the anti-independence campaign group wrote: “There is a co-ordinated dirty-tricks campaign by the nationalists. They should stop it.

“Allegations were made about one of our donors in a nationalist blog a few days ago. These were only covered in the press after a fresh and cynical attack by SNP MP Angus Robertson as they desperately tried to create a story.”

The group added: “Why are they doing all this? Because they know the vast majority of Scots disagree with them and to win the referendum they need to silence the voices of the majority.”

However, as detailed by Newsnet Scotland yesterday, the allegations against Mr Taylor were originally reported by non-Scottish news organisations including Reuters.  The most controversial allegation that Mr Taylor’s company, Vitol, made a payment of one million dollars to Serbian war criminal Arkan was originally published in 2001 by the Guardian newspaper.

The Better Together campaign has come under pressure following reports originally published by respected news organisations Reuters, the Telegraph and the Guardian, that claimed their biggest donor was head of a company that had made a payment of $1 million to a convicted war criminal.

The reports also detailed other claims involving a company headed by Ian Taylor that included tax avoidance and trading that “skirted” around EU and US sanctions.

Appearing on STV’s Scotland Tonight last night, Better Together campaign director Blair McDougall defended the donation and made further allegations he claimed were a result of SNP concerted attacks.

He said: “We have … seen the SNP machine in a concerted attack for example on the media recently.  They’ve attacked the BBC consistently in their coverage of the independence issue.  There was a huge attack on the Scotland on Sunday and the Scotsman group over the weekend.”

The claim of an ‘attack’ on the Scotsman group is thought to be a reference to fury throughout Scotland at the depiction by the Scotland on Sunday newspaper, of the Scottish flag with a nazi sign replacing the St Andrews cross.

Responding, head of the pro-independence Yes Scotland campaign Blair Jenkins called Mr McDougall’s claims “inaccurate” and “unfair” and described the language being used by the Better Together campaign director as “highly irresponsible.”

He said: “What I think is regrettable in what Better Together did today is that they have bundled together a whole lot of very different types of activity and tried to suggest that all of these things are connected and co-ordinated.

“I think for one of the official campaigns to resort to that kind of smear this early in the campaign, without any basis whatsoever for doing so is highly regrettable.

“I would hope that Better Together would have reflected on what they’ve done today, would think that’s not really the way they should conduct themselves and I think the article should be withdrawn and I think that they have to raise their game.”

A bizarre accusation by the Better Together campaign director that there was a smear campaign being led by “the top of the Yes campaign and Alex Salmond” was dismissed by the Yes campaign head Blair Jenkins as “completely untrue”.

Yesterday it emerged that a number of news outlets, including the Herald newspaper and pro-independence website National Collective had received letters from lawyers acting on behalf of Mr Taylor.

The National Collective site has been taken down as a result and in a statement, Aamer Anwar, Solicitor acting on their behalf stated: “National Collective have instructed my firm to act on their behalf, they state that they will not be bullied or silenced and state that their 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 episode has also witnessed the Guardian’s Scotland correspondent Severin Carrell claim that the legal challenge was due to the unprofessional nature of many nationalist websites.

Appearing on Newsnight Scotland in a surprisingly short item, Mr Carrell described the legal challenge and claims by Better Together as “handbags at dawn”.

Mr Carrell echoed Better Together’s claim that the interest from main stream news organisations into Mr Taylor’s background was due to an an article originally published by National Collective, despite the fact that it was his own newspaper – the Guardian – that originally published the Arkan story in 2001.

Mr Carrell also claimed that the legal challenges were a result of the difference between the way professional news organisations operated and the way that ‘campaigners’ were operating.

He added: “The campaigners perhaps haven’t quite had the experience knowledge and legal advice that may have prevented some of the problems they are now encountering.”

He added that there had been legal letter sent to “other nationalist websites” and it was getting quite “intense for the independence movement”.

However, in what appears to be an embarrassing omission by the Guardian journalist, he omitted to mention that on his own blog he reveals that the Herald newspaper is also a recipient of a legal letter.

He writes: “Vitol has retaliated, asserting that many of the claims against it are untrue and libellous; the Herald has now had a lawyer’s letter and so too has National Collective.”

Newsnet Scotland has asked Better Together for clarification on some of the claims made in their online article.  Yesterday evening we sent the following message:

Hello

We would appreciate some clarification to the statement that appeared on your website today April 10th 2013, that makes quite specific allegations against ‘nationalists’.

Can you provide any specific proof to back your claim that: “There is a co-ordinated dirty-tricks campaign by the nationalists.”?

You claim that: “Allegations were made about one of our donors in a nationalist blog a few days ago. These were only covered in the press after a fresh and cynical attack by SNP MP Angus Robertson as they desperately tried to create a story.”

As far as we can tell, this is not borne out by fact, in that claims surrounding Mr Ian Taylor and Vitol were originally reported by Reuters, the Telegraph and the Guardian some time ago.  We would appreciate your response to this specific point.

Also, can you provide evidence and details to support your claim that the Better Together: “…campaign HQ comes under attack with almost daily attempts of sabotage from SNP activists.”?

We are preparing an article on today’s events and would appreciate your feedback.

Kind Regards
Newsnet Scotland