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  By G.A.Ponsonby
 
It began with an offer by Yes Scotland to the Herald newspaper of an article by a respected academic and ended with the entire online operation at Yes Scotland being closed down.
 
The controversy over a small fee paid to Dr Elliott Bulmer for an article published in the Herald has dominated the headlines since late Wednesday. 

The topsy-turvy world that is the media in Scotland has witnessed a bizarre obsession with a routine party political smear whilst the far bigger story - illegal hacking - has been marginalised.  The media in Scotland have appeared unable, or more likely unwilling, to distinguish real news from a politically motivated attack.

However the more one examines the facts of this story the more one wonders if there is something more sinister at work.

The claim that somehow paying a freelance writer & academic £100 for his time in writing an article for publication, was deception, is one of the most ludicrous claims I have ever heard.  If that is the case then freelance writers who hold political views might as well jack it in now.

Unionists dominate the media in Scotland, and pro-Union views pepper every radio chat show and TV broadcast.  Better Together doesn't have to worry about getting their viewpoint across as this week clearly demonstrates.

The calls for transparency are hilarious when one recalls that Newsnet Scotland asked BBC Scotland to provide a list of guests they had invited onto their political programmes since the start of the year and, where appropriate, their political and/or constitutional leanings.  The BBC refused.

The charge that the article by Elliot Bulmer misled readers by not being accompanied by a declaration of either his pro-independence leanings or the fact that it had been offered the Herald by Yes Scotland, is easy to rip to shreds.

For one, the decision whether to inform readers of the involvement of Yes Scotland lay with the Herald editor.  A byline gave information of Dr Bulmer’s background, it would have been very easy to have included a brief note that the article had been offered to the Herald by Yes Scotland.

Indeed, as Wings over Scotland pointed out.  The Better Together campaign director Blair McDougall authored an anti-independence piece which was recently published by the Guardian, but which made no mention of McDougall's links to Better Together.

But it's the actions of the Herald newspaper that causes me most puzzlement.

Yesterday the paper published an editorial which contained the following line:

"For our part The Herald undertakes to show clearly when an article has been offered by any political campaign group."

That seems clear enough.  But in the same editorial the paper's editor added:

"We were offered the article by the pro-independence Yes Scotland campaign ..."

So, the Herald appears in this case to have broken its own stated policy by not informing the reader that the article had come from Yes Scotland.

There's more though.  Newsnet Scotland revealed on Thursday that the Herald was notified prior to publication that Dr Bulmer had requested a fee for writing the article, but in keeping with their policy the newspaper declined to pay.  Why, if there are questions over transparency, didn't the newspaper express basic journalistic interest in whether the fee had been paid?

Some people have been enquiring as to the accuracy of our claim that the Herald had been made aware of Dr Bulmer's fee request, given Blair Jenkins failed to disclose it in TV and radio interviews.  The information, Newsnet Scotland can assure readers, is indeed accurate.

So, we have a situation where a major Scottish newspaper has been offered an article by Yes Scotland, a dialogue has taken place in which everything is transparent and the author's request for a fee is discussed.

The newspaper publishes the article in the knowledge that payment may have been made and that the campaign group Yes Scotland had commissioned the piece and offered it.

Yes Scotland had no power to compel the Herald to add a byline or similar to the article.  The newspaper took the decision not to inform its readers of the involvement of Yes Scotland.

Even the demand for a fee, the main thrust of critics attacks, was an element the Herald could have established easily by asking.  As I have already explained, the Herald knew Dr Bulmer had requested a modest fee.

Whether Yes Scotland should have paid Dr Bulmer is not the issue.  They did and they made no secret of having done so when asked.  That the journalist who eventually did ask had in his possession details of the payment made to Dr Bulmer is the real story here.

That information, Newsnet Scotland has been told, definitely came from the result of an email account having been illegally accessed.  Whether the email account was deliberately targeted for this reason is not known, but criminality led to the information falling into the hands of a journalist.

This aspect of the whole episode is the most uncomfortable.  Information, which is very clearly being manipulated for political ends, has been acquired illegally yet is being used as the basis to mount attacks on Yes Scotland and its chief Blair Jenkins.

Even a few supporters of independence are allowing themselves to get caught up in the Unionist maelstrom and get panicked into criticising a perfectly legitimate payment - a fee the Herald knew had been requested from the get-go.

The Better Together campaign and the Scottish Labour party appeared to have had, at the ready, statements accusing Blair Jenkins of deception within minutes of Yes Scotland confirming they had indeed paid Dr Bulmer.

As ever, the BBC crew based at pacific Quay have provided every available platform for the pro-Union lobby to promote their smears.  In contrast to the coverage afforded the half million pound donation to Better Together, it has dominated BBC Scotland news coverage.

Where Alistair Darling and Blair McDougall avoided having to answer difficult questions at the time of the Ian Taylor donation issue, Blair Jenkins has had to field every possible line of question from the usual suspects. 

Like a house owner whose house has been burgled and an expired library ticket brandished by the burglar, the victim has faced an inquisition over the library ticket whilst real criminality has been downplayed, and even in some BBC bulletins, ignored altogether.  How will the media react if and when the culprit is apprehended or identified and what of the journalist who found himself in posession of the 'stolen goods'.

BBC Scotland, in keeping with the narrative, has ensured that the Bulmer article eclipsed the hacking story.

There is no conclusive proof of a conspiracy in this unfortunate episode.  But one has to question the role of the Herald newspaper in all of this and why it did not enforce its own policy when publishing Dr Bulmer's opinion piece.

The newspaper published an article it knew had been offered by Yes Scotland, by an author who it knew had requested payment for writing the article, yet apparently did nothing.

The Herald has stated it was not told about the £100 paid by Yes Scotland.  If, as its political editor Magnus Gardham claimed on Brian Taylor's Big Debate, that there was an issue of transparency [note that listeners to the show were not told that Gardham or fellow panellist Hamish McDonnell are pro-Union, nor whether they were paid by the BBC.] - then why didn't Gardham's paper ask if the fee had been paid and tell its readers Yes Scotland had offered the story?

I smell a rat!

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