DUP Brexit spending raises concerns about the law, not about how it was reported, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis.
In the final days of the EU referendum campaign, the Democratic Unionist Party paid for a wrap-around advert in the Metro, calling on voters to “take back control”.
The message reached far beyond Northern Ireland, where the Metro isn’t even distributed, and should have been far beyond their means – an advert like that costs more than a quarter of a million pounds. The DUP spent less than £100,000 on an entire devolved election campaign in 2016.
In fact, the party that now keeps the Conservatives in power spent an incredible £425,000 on Brexit, buying a lot besides newspaper advertising. How they came into that money might have remained a secret, but for intense political and media pressure.
Electoral rules in Northern Ireland did not, until recently, require parties to declare where they had got their money from – a legacy of the Troubles. We might never have found out that the DUP’s Brexit campaign was bankrolled by the Constitutional Research Council (CRC), a shadowy group headed by a former Scottish Conservative Party chairman and parliamentary candidate, Richard Cook.
The CRC doesn’t file accounts and has no public face. We have no idea where it gets its money – and the only person who knows, Cook, isn’t saying. Meanwhile, his own business dealings have come under intense scrutiny.
All of this has been reported over the past 18 months. The journalists Peter Geoghegan and Adam Ramsay, writing for Open Democracy, have been the most dogged, but they’ve been abetted by other outlets.
The latest revelations about Cook’s previous activities were the product of an investigation by BBC Northern Ireland, and were picked up and reported by BBC Scotland. Cook is an elusive character, but was doorstepped by Channel 4 News and challenged to reveal where the CRC’s money came from. When the CRC was first named by the DUP, the news was splashed on the front page of the Herald, and the story had also been reported by its sister paper, the Sunday Herald, and other publications.
The DUP donation has been linked to wider claims of cooperation between different Brexit campaigns in breach of electoral spending law, stemming from the widely reported Cambridge Analytica controversy. The central allegation is that money was passed to different groups to avoid legal spending limits – a claim that has been denied, but which is under investigation by the Electoral Commission.
The facts are that the DUP spent £32,000 with data firm AIQ, which also received 40 per cent of the official Vote Leave campaign budget, as well as nearly £675,000 from another campaign group, BeLeave. When the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Chris Wylie told MPs he was “absolutely convinced” the spending represented a breach of electoral law, that was reported in The Scotsman.
All this serves as a lengthy run up to this: when Nicola Sturgeon echoed the Twitter hordes by saying she was “surprised there aren’t more media questions being asked” about what the SNP is calling ‘dark money’, I shared her surprise.
Engaging with people who question the how, why and why not of stories in the Scottish media is usually pointless – they are almost always motivated by political partisanship, a deep attachment to conspiracy theory, and a lack of understanding about how the news today works. Those traits shouldn’t be encouraged.
If critics want to see what is a complicated story delved into more deeply, then they have to accept that the biggest problem with the so-called ‘mainstream’ media in Scotland is that there isn’t enough of it – that sort of work takes resources, mainly time.
Many of the wounds of the media industry were self-inflicted. It doesn’t help for elected politicians to keep punching them. Above all, the details already uncovered in the story of the DUP’s Brexit cash have amply demonstrated that rules around political donations lack transparency, particularly in relation to Northern Ireland. In a world were ‘calling out’ something is seen as akin to political action, the media’s critics have somehow convinced themselves the problem is that not enough is being written. Actually, it’s that not enough is being done. That’s not our department.