The investigation into the clearly widespread journalistic practice of hacking into electronic information and communications systems, netted a revelatory creature from the deep this week.
It became known that the Yes Scotland campaign had commissioned academic, Dr Elliot Bulmer, to write an article on an independence related issue and – a less remarked upon matter, The Herald had published it, without acknowledgment of these circumstances.
The article, Identity Charade, was published in The Herald a few weeks ago on 4th August, in the wake of public concerns over the consequences of independence. The piece chimed directly with these concerns and worked to deflect them, since allaying them was a tough ask.
It argued that independence would not make Scots less British and tried to deflect the debate into an area with diversionary sex appeal.
Saying that independence will not make Scots less British is the same as saying that a camp fire potato is still a potato. Yes it is – but it is a cooked potato with its roots no longer in the ground and it tastes different.
The direction in which Dr Bulmer attempted to deflect attention was ‘self-government’ – which The Herald helpfully chose to render in stand-out promotional capital letters in a strapline otherwise presented in normal upper and lower case characters. See it here for yourself – in the article as published.
Set aside the ‘Yes Scotland’ campaign’s caper and Dr Bulmer’s ease of accommodation – which each is entitled to try on, if not to get away with.
The key issue here is the knowing compliance of a national news service which did not disclose to its readers the commissioning source of the article in question, which it knew.
By The Herald’s own admission – albeit not presented as such – in an editorial in yesterday’s edition, 23rd August, the paper got the article, not from Dr Bulmer but from the Yes Campaign itself.
The Herald editorial said:
‘We were offered the article by the pro-independence Yes Scotland campaign and, having considered it carefully, decided to publish the piece as an important contribution to the referendum debate’.
The Herald made no mention of why it decided to be so helpful to the purpose of the piece and its sponsors in highlighting in capital letters the topic that was the diversionary purpose of the exercise.
In its editorial The Herald used two tactics to attempt to deflect attention from its undeclared compromises. It focused on:
- the discomfort it claimed to feel in discovering that Dr Bulmer had been paid a [modest] fee of £100 for his efforts;
- defending against Scottish Labour’s call for the resignation of Blair Jenkins, Leader of the Yes Scotland campaign.
We were intended to feel gravely supportive of a newspaper whose ‘policy is not to pay for such articles‘. [Ed: the emphasis is ours.]
The issue of payment is an irrelevance – whatever the amount had been.
The presence of money in the agreement simply makes it clear to the innocent that this article was never the production of a disinterested author. It does not make the author’s connivance any more professionally unacceptable.
The Herald’s declaration that, as a matter of policy, they never pay for ‘such articles’ indicates that it has form in publishing articles from sources it knows to be fuelled by vested interest; and in publishing ‘such articles’ without making the provenance of the material clear to its readers.
A news service is free to adopt its own position on any issue – if it declares and justifies that position.
Yes Scotland is quite free to pay for whatever they wanted to be written – and to try to persuade supposedly independent news services to publish them under their own banner.
However, the basis of the relationship between a news service and its audience prohibits that service from entering into any such covert agreement.
Dr Bulmer is justifiably left with reputational damage in having been seen to be willing to write a supposedly objective article to order, to advance a partisan perspective. That he accepted pocket money for doing it is of no account.
The issue is threefold:
- cooperation was proposed by Yes Scotland, accepted by the author and executed with the cognisant compliance of The Herald;
- not one of these collaborating parties informed readers of the origins and purpose of the piece;
- and The Herald helpfully put ‘red top’ typographical steam behind the exercise in its strapline.
The profound collateral damage here – and deservedly so – is to The Herald.
The news media are accepted as ‘the fourth estate’, a powerful agent of society charged with a specific and protective role – independent of government, calling all to account and acting in the interests of the people against the machinations of the rich and powerful.
The Herald has betrayed this complex trusted function badly and will have to work hard to retrieve the position it has lost.
By its own account, it has done so knowingly and, by its own account, it has not done so for the first time.
It actually has ‘a policy’ for publishing ‘such articles’. That policy clearly does not include disclosure to the public.
This is now a major issue of trust.
None of us can have any idea just what other examples of ‘such articles’ have been published.
Was the Bulmer piece the only one fostered by Yes Scotland?
Was The Herald even handed? Did Better Together also give it the occasional article that it slid into our consciousness in disguise? If so, what were the titles and who were the authors of ‘such articles’?
Are ‘such articles’ confined to political accommodations? Are there business interests which source ‘such articles’? Those too could be considered ‘important contributions’ to debate.
One thing this ‘identity charade’ of The Herald’s makes imperative.
From now on, there is no alternative to complete transparency on the source, commissioner, sponsor or whatever of any Herald article, regardless of whether it is being paid for by anyone or no one.
Without this, how can any of us again trust what is presented to us in The Herald in the guise of disinterested expertise?