By Anne-Marie O’Donnell
Links between the UK government and a so-called “grass roots” anti-independence campaign have been exposed just days after its much-hyped launch.
The Vote No Borders group received extensive news coverage from the BBC when it launched this week, the broadcaster described it as grassroots and heavily quoted one of its founders and directors, Malcolm Offord.
However, human rights activist and author Craig Murray – a former British ambassador – soon discovered and revealed in a blog post that Mr Offord was in fact a Conservative party donor who has given Prime Minister David Cameron’s party more than £120,000. He has also made personal donations to Education Secretary Michael Gove, and authored a report called ‘Bankrupt Britain’ which is hosted on the Conservative Home website.
Furthermore, Murray discovered Mr Offord’s fellow director, Fiona Gilmore, had a background worthy of note.
“Now pay close attention: Fiona Gilmore is chief executive of Acanchi, a PR consultancy which specialises in ‘Country Branding’,” Mr Murray wrote. “Its clients include Israel, Dubai, Bahrain and ‘England’. Yes, it actually specifies ‘England’ on the company website. Acanchi also works for DFID – in short, it gets UK taxpayers’ money, plus Israeli and Gulf Arab money. Are you familiar with the word fungibility?”
Eyebrows were further raised when Murray updated his blog post with information revealing that the Vote No Borders website domain was registered by Gary Waple, who works in the Prudential Regulatory Authority of the Bank of England.
Murray slammed the BBC for its coverage of the group and noted that other, genuine grassroots groups such as Radical Independence receive little media attention.
One report about the launch of Vote No Borders on the BBC website read: “A new grassroots pro-Union group called No Borders launches later to make what it says is an ’emotional’ appeal to voters.
“Its spokesman, Malcolm Offord, is an investment banker originally from Greenock who now works in London and Scotland. He said the group’s aim was to engage with voters’ emotions and promote ‘ordinary voices’.”
Mr Murray accused the BBC of delivering pro-union propaganda by giving the group extensive coverage with relevant context or questioning.
“It took me an hour with google to find all this,” he wrote. “That the BBC continues to propagandise this fake ‘grassroots campaign’ without revealing Offord’s Tory Party credentials, his belief in never-ending cuts in public spending and welfare benefits, and Acanchi being a consultant paid by government to boost the UK image is completely beyond anything that can remotely be described as legitimate.
“It is the most abhorrent example of a fake story, entirely contrived state propaganda, being put out by a state broadcaster.”
Another investigation from Wings Over Scotland (WOS) revealed that the group registered as a permitted participant in the referendum campaign with the Electoral Commission on 19 March, 43 days before the launch of the website. In that time, the group pulled in £150,000 of funding without any public campaign.
In addition, it uncovered Ms Gilmore’s position as a director of Flowers of Union Ltd, which it noted had no digital footprint, but listed its registered address at 32-34 Great Marloborough Street – also listed on Acanchi’s website as a contact address.
The WOS report added: “Why mention Flowers of Union? Well, apart from the obvious bit in their name, the VNB website claims to know of a band ‘whose members have been working with the No Borders Campaign to create a song’. The name of this young group of enthusiastic grassroots supporters of the UK? Amazingly enough, it’s ‘Flowers of Union’.”
Like Mr Murray, WOS also slammed the mainstream media’s failure to explain the backgrounds of those involved in the campaign and misleading members of the public by labelling it as “grassroots”.
In a sideswipe at the lack of scrutiny employed by some outlets, the article concluded sarcastically: “Of course, this was all extremely complicated to find out – requiring the ability to both type some things into Google AND then click the resulting links – which is presumably why the Herald and BBC didn’t bother having a cursory glance into the campaign group’s background, to check just how “grassroots” it really is,
“We’re so lucky to have such a diligent professional media, or the state of the Scottish independence debate could be a right old shambles, eh readers?”