Intercepted emails and the independence debate

Blair Jenkins of Yes Scotland signed off the �100 payment to pro-independence academic Dr Elliot Bulmer. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Blair Jenkins of Yes Scotland signed off the �100 payment to pro-independence academic Dr Elliot Bulmer. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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The Yes Campaign is furious that its emails have been intercepted, and the controversy threatens to poison the whole independence debate

IT WAS a conversation back in 2005 between Prince William and ITV’s Tom Bradby which famously triggered the phone-hacking scandal. A story had appeared in the News of the World that William had borrowed some recording equipment from Bradby, a close private friend. Only the two of them had discussed it, however – and so Bradby had advised William to check whether his phone was being bugged. The rest is history.

According to figures in Yes Scotland, the pro-independence campaign based on Hope Street in Glasgow, the same thing happened to them a week ago last Wednesday. Their communications team had just received a call from a newspaper, saying it had information to the effect that the group had paid an academic, Dr Elliot Bulmer, to write an article in his name backing up the independence cause. The information was correct. But, claim the Yes Scotland team, the query immediately set off alarm bells. “Only two or three people knew about it,” says one. “And we knew they wouldn’t leak stuff. That’s what triggered it.” If no-one else knew about the payment, then how had it got out?

So began a story which, this weekend, has – in the words of one combatant – put the independence referendum debate “in a very dirty place”. There is the first issue of whether an academic should write a piece in a “private capacity” for a national newspaper, without it being made clear he was being paid by one of the main campaigns. And, separate to that, there is the far more troubling allegation that this information only came to light because one of the campaigns to decide Scotland’s future was being systematically and illegally hacked.

Both issues can be dated back to early July when Yes Scotland officials called up Bulmer to discuss the idea of writing an article on his ideas for a Scottish constitution. In 2011, he had written a book setting out his concept of a “model constitution” for Scotland. Bulmer heads the Constitutional Commission, a Scottish-based charity which was set up by independence supporter John Drummond, and veteran devolutionist Canon Kenyon Wright in 2005 to promote “democratic citizenship” and “constitutional education”. Bulmer has a deep hinterland; a former Royal Navy logistics officer, he says he spent six months leading a special operations PSYOPS (psychological operations) team in Iraq before, in 2006, embarking on a postgraduate degree at Glasgow University focussing on constitutional design. While the Constitution Commission does not hold a stance on independence, Bulmer is personally a supporter.

He agreed to write a piece summarising his views, which Yes Scotland would then aim to place with a national newspaper (a regular practice in the industry). The newspaper in this case was The Herald. However, Bulmer wasn’t going to get paid by the newspaper. And so, he explained last week: “I did suggest that a small payment be made, not to buy my services of writing it, but simply as compensation for my time.” In a statement to Scotland on Sunday, he added: “I, as a freelance academic and contributor, have every right to be paid for my writing. I would do the same if anyone else asked for a working day of my time. I had full editorial control of the article and was not given any direction on what to say, neither by Yes Scotland nor by my Constitutional Commission colleagues.”

Blair Jenkins, Yes Scotland’s chief executive, agreed and signed off a £100 payment.

When, ten days ago, a separate newspaper inquired about the payment, the alarm bells began to ring. Yes Scotland officials insist they were not worried about the payment being made public, saying they felt there was nothing “improper” about it. But the fact that it had become common knowledge was. Like William and Bradby eight years earlier, the only conclusion they could reach was that somehow their privacy had been invaded. They called in digital forensic officers at Police Scotland and an initial investigation began at the start of last week.

The story now has now two separate aspects: one concerning questions over the payment to Bulmer, and the other on the hacking that appears to have brought it to light. Last week, to the Yes camp’s obvious frustration, the former threatened to overshadow the more serious issue of the hacking. Better Together had quickly pointed out that Bulmer’s article appeared with no indication that it had been paid for by one of the main campaigns in the referendum. So were readers effectively duped?

Jenkins was asked a hypothetical question on STV last week; if an academic had written an article on climate change, paid for by an environmental charity, would he want to know that before going on to read it. Eventually, he said: “In an absolute sense, yes. I would want to know.”

So shouldn’t readers of The Herald have been told that Bulmer had been paid for his? Was the cash “a bung”, as the pro-UK cause has it?

The point Bulmer and his friends at Yes Scotland make in response is that no-one forced him to write as he did; Yes Scotland simply facilitated it, to ensure that views he held were distributed more widely. To moan about the propriety of paying is, they say, to be displaying “manufactured outrage” over what Jenkins dismissed last week as an “inconsequential point”.

As to whether the payment has left the Constitution Commission facing a conflict of interest, Bulmer is blunt. He told Scotland on Sunday: “While my own preference for independence is a matter of public record – I’ve never been shy about it – the Constitutional Commission exists to provide well-researched information to the public about constitutional choices, and its membership contains divergent views on a range of constitutional questions, including the question of whether Scotland should be an independent state, so there is no question of any conflict of interest in that regard.”

Jenkins was clearly irritated last week that the question over this £100 payment has been given similar prominence to the much greater question about the hacking allegations. In an effort to illustrate his point, Jenkins ramped up his language on Thursday describing the allegations as nothing less than “an attack on democracy”. He and colleagues also declared that, even after police had been called in, the hacking was still on-going on Wednesday last week, amid speculation that it could be traced to a foreign IP address. He also spoke of how, Tuesday night, the hacking suddenly became more “sinister”, prompting speculation that Jenkins’ own email had been hacked into. That was what prompted the group to switch the entire network off and call in a private cyber-security firm to set up new defences. The investigations could go on “for weeks”, one source said. There is no doubt that this is now a investigation that is now being taken with the upmost seriousness by Police Scotland.

Where does all of this leave the campaigns for and against Scottish independence? Taking the question over the payment to Bulmer, Better Together figures say that while all this has been going on, there has been little movement in the polls, suggesting that whatever impact the row has had on the political bubble, it has not yet registered with the wider public at all. However, there are concerns on the pro-independence side that all this is, at the very least, time wasted when it needs to be on the front foot, itself landing blows on the other side. And then there are the questions about what it says about the campaign. It comes amid persistent grumblings from within the pro-independence side that the campaign, and Jenkins in particular, is not hitting the mark. Yes Scotland’s communications director Susan Stewart recently stepped down from her post, while two other members of staff have also quit. Prominent pro-independence blogger Kate Higgins declared last week that there was a “real risk” that the Yes Scotland campaign would end up “eroding all the trust and competence that the SNP fought so hard to build up”.

The hacking allegations are surely more likely to be the much bigger long-term issue. Police will now continue their investigations. If a hacker is uncovered and if that person turns out to be linked to the pro-UK cause in some way, or turns out to be a disaffected Yes supporter, it could have enormous implications for the next year’s campaigning. Alex Salmond warned last week that if someone in the media had done the hacking “it would be a very, very serious matter indeed”.

It may be that, in the new era of global connectedness, cyber-hacking is set to become a common feature of the bare-knuckle world of politics. Recent reports in the USA revealed that, in 2008, the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and John McCain were hacked into by the People’s Republic of China. There were also reports of cyber-hacking in Iranian presidential elections this summer.

It is “a dirty game”, say combatants on both sides of the referendum debate. And in an atmosphere of paranoia, both sides are now levelling accusations at the other. On the Yes side, campaigners claim that pro-independence academics are being told to stay quiet by their superiors for fear of what their comments could do to funding applications at their university. On the No side, pro-UK business figures claim that there is an “atmosphere of fear” among colleagues who are worried about angry phone calls from SNP ministers telling them to remain schtum.

The danger is that, if the combatants get caught up in a year-long scrap, the public will back off, and steer clear of the great debate, for fear of getting walloped by a stray fist. «

Twitter: @EddieBarnes23