This week hasn’t been a good one for the anti-independence campaign Better Together. A controversial half million pound donation from a businessman whose company has been linked to a war criminal and tax avoidance, has led to the Unionist alliance going into defensive mode as revelations over the business history of Ian Taylor’s company Vitol swamped online media.
The broadcast media and print media were sluggish to pick up the details and by the time they did, the bloggersphere had effectively did their job for them.
The Herald’s Robbie Dinwoodie swam against the mainstream media tide, but he cut a lone figure as the rest of our ‘professionals’ treated Vitol as superman would kryptonite. In keeping with the finest traditions of free speech, an online website was closed down following a lawyer’s letter on behalf of the Vitol Chief Executive.
However amid the controversy over the donation to Better Together were outrageous claims by their campaign director Blair McDougall of a coordinated campaign of ‘smear and fear’ orchestrated by Alex Salmond and the people at the top of the Yes Scotland campaign.
Mr McDougall’s allegations coincided with an online article by Better Together that made several sweeping claims that appeared equally outrageous.
One of those was a claim that the Better Together HQ in Glasgow “comes under attack with almost daily attempts of sabotage from SNP activists.”
This was quite an allegation and one that ordinarily would have resulted in a fleet of reporters, cameramen and film crews hurrying to see the evidence of said attacks. Surely, after a few weeks of these attacks, a few clandestinely placed cameras by Better Together would have resulted in proof that the claims were real – resulting in a huge story and a blow to the ‘separatists’.
But instead of a media scrum there was media silence.
It didn’t seem right. So Newsnet Scotland decided to see if we could elicit details from Better Together on what were very serious claims indeed.
We first tried to encourage clarification via the Better Together online form. Entering our details, which included a telephone number, we posed three questions relating to the online claims … and waited for a response … after three days we’re still waiting.
Yesterday we tried another tactic, phoning them directly. One of our researchers called Better Together to ask about the claim that the HQ in Glasgow had been attacked almost daily.
The person who took the call seemed helpful and listened as our researcher explained why he was calling. He was told that the person he needed to speak to was someone called Rob Shorthouse, the Better Together person asked for our man’s details.
“Newsnet Scotland” said our man, “the BBC?” said the Better Together person, and it was then explained that no, we’re not the BBC but an online news site.
The call ended and we thought that was that, only for our man’s telephone to ring less than a minute later. It was Rob Shorthouse.
For those who do not know, Mr Shorthouse is the former communications chief at Strathclyde Police who, according to the Herald, was recruited by Better Together last year on a salary of £100,000 per year.
Speaking to the Herald at the time, a source at Better Together said: “From our point of view his experience and background is outstanding, with an ability to reach beyond many of the usual message-carriers and across all parts of Scotland.”
According to Herald journalist Robbie Dinwoodie, writing in June last year:
Mr Shorthouse joined the civil service in 2001 in the communications directorate at St Andrew’s House and rose up the ranks swiftly, becoming a senior communications officer for Jack McConnell as First Minister.
In 2006, he was seconded to be head of media and public relations for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games bid team, and he became the Scottish Football Association’s head of communications in 2007.
Quite a CV and a bit of a coup for Better Together in recruiting Mr Shorthouse – but would he be able to shed light on the serious claims made by the organisation that now employed him?
Mr Shorthouse asked which show our man was from. The belief that we were the BBC appeared to be a common misconception – we concluded that the name Newsnet Scotland sounded remarkably similar to Newsnight Scotland, and the Better Together man seemed keen to chat.
However all that changed when he realised that we weren’t in fact who he believed and, after listening to our man’s question, Rob made an excuse that it was a bad line and the noise from the Ibrox crowd made it difficult to talk … he would call back.
That he initiated the call in the first place despite being at Ibrox was puzzling, but we’ll leave that there. One would have thought that given the allegations – contained in Better Together’s online statement – had been there for several days that their ‘message-carrier’ would have had a message to carry just waiting for journalists and reporters to call.
But not so, and by late Saturday evening we had received no follow up call from Mr Shorthouse.
So, in desperation we tried one last move … twitter. We sent Mr Shorthouse a tweet asking him for details on the ‘HQ attacks’ claim.
We’ll see if he is forthcoming.
As we sit by the phone, it’s worth reminding readers of the seriousness of the accusations levelled by Better Together – that their headquarters has been subjected to almost daily attacks and attempted sabotage by SNP activists. This isn’t a typical political smear and carries with it all sorts of disconcerting imagery.
Such attacks, given their prolongued and frequent nature would have surely resulted in the victims reporting them to police. Measures would also have been put in place in the near certainty that culprits, who were apparently carrying out these attacks with predictable regularity, would have eventually been apprehended.
We also contacted the local police to ask whether these attacks had indeed been reported by anyone from Better Together, we’ll wait to see what Better Together has to say on the matter before we reveal the answer to that particular question.
Since Better Together made the allegations, some four days or so ago, then their HQ will in all probability have been subjected to another of these “almost daily” attacks.
Either that or there never were any such attacks by SNP activists and the claims by Better Together were fabricated in an attempt at deflecting attention away from Ian Taylor’s £500,000 donation.
We don’t know which of the two scenarios is the more likely, but we think we have a good idea.
In the meantime here is what Mr Shorthouse tweeted on the day that the National Collective website was closed down after receiving a lawyer’s letter on behalf of Better Together’s biggest donor.
What point does the closing down of accounts prove? The link in the tweet is to the Better Together statement entitled ‘Smear and Fear’.
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