Better Together’s Breakdown and Our Response To Legal Intimidation

On Tuesday the 9th of April National Collective received a document threatening legal action from Collyer Bristow, acting on behalf of Vitol and Ian Taylor, Vitol’s CEO.

This was a great shock. As our public statement today demonstrated, we stand by the article we published. We refuse to back down in the face of legal intimidation by lawyers acting on behalf of the biggest oil traders in the world.

Our main article explains this story in full. However, we also wish to explain our response to this event in full, following recent speculation and attempts to divert attention from the original story.

A great deal of this speculation and diversion came from Better Together. Unluckily for them, we were watching.

The political motivation behind those who criticised us during our period of planning was clear. Better Together and others conducted themselves with complete disregard of the facts. This was clear from the outset and is documented fully below.

At 2.15pm on the 10th of April Rob Shorthouse, the Better Together Director of Communications, tweeted

Seconds earlier, Blair MacDougall, the Better Together Campaign Director, had tweeted this:

A number of interesting questions arise from this.

  1. How did Rob and Blair know about what was happening at National Collective before the site was taken down or a comment released? Were they aware of the legal letter we had received?
  2. Why did Rob and Blair – who had previously ignored all our requests for a statement on the Taylor donation and ignored us generally within the campaign – decide within seconds of each other to suddenly recognise our existence?
  3. Why did Rob wish to spread the message that our response to the legal letter (was he aware of it?) would be a stunt?

The answer to all three is obvious. The Better Together campaign team may lack arguments and grass-roots supporters, but they are not stupid. By issuing these statements they took advantage of our inability to comment publicly and were attempting to undermine whatever response we chose.

To add to their response to our piece they went into a full, defensive lockdown in this blog: ‘Smear and Fear’, a frankly bizarre statement accusing us of being part of a ‘co-ordinated dirty-tricks campaign’. This accused supporters of independence of a creating a ‘culture of fear’, of ‘militant nationalists’ disrupting events and claiming that Better Together HQ came under ‘daily attempts of sabotage from SNP activists’. Blair McDougall continued this line of attack on Scotland Tonight that evening, insinuating that this campaign was orchestrated by the SNP with Alex Salmond at the head. This hysterical reaction was nothing short of a moral and intellectual breakdown.

The Scottish Sun calling it a “student stunt” and stated that “if you really want to get into conspiracy theory territory, you could even start to wonder if the whole thing is a fiendish plot by Better Together to smear their opponents’. The attempt to accuse the independence movement of a coordinated smear campaign, while in fact smearing us all, seemed a classic case of psychological projection. There was no evidence from Better Together, only desperation.

However, Better Together were not finished in their attempts to deflect attention from their donation scandal. As a final act of distraction Better Together tried to spin John Mann MP into attack mode.  Mr Mann had been the original person to describe Mr Taylor’s political donations as ‘dirty money’ in The Telegraph. Being a Labour MP, this made him a weak link for public relations purposes. It was predictable. It was dull. And we saw straight through it. You can become aghast at the hypocrisy, the manipulation, the deceit at the heart of all this. Perhaps that was the point.

Better Together’s breakdown itself became a distraction from our original article and questions. It becomes a political dogfight far removed from public view or interest. We wish to move beyond that now.

From all the information now in the public domain, it’s clear that Better Together’s attempt to discredit National Collective have failed and only generated far greater publicity and support for our campaign. In this case and throughout the last week the amateurs looked professional and the professionals looked amateur. We plan for this to continue up until the referendum.

For a full contrast between the hysteria of Better Together’s response, it is worth outlining in full the scale of the problem we faced over a week ago and the reasons for our actions.

The legal letter we receive made clear and immediate demands via a company of considerable resource. ($197 billion according to The Telegraph) Our first course of action was to seek legal advice.

That legal advice gave three recommendations: 1) that National Collective and the individuals involved should make no immediate comment. 2) That a considerable amount of time would be necessary to gather information for a response. 3) That the material in question should be removed for this length of time.

This put us in a difficult position. For several reasons – while unable to comment on the specifics of the case and unwilling to back down to threats to specific made by Vitol’s lawyers – we took the site offline to calculate our response.

We hoped to be back online in a short period of time. Our legal advice, however, could not be released until today.

During this time we made no comment. Certain politically motivated individuals used this vacuum to accuse National Collective of manipulating the situation or to distract from the original concerns of our article. Such claims are ignorant of the following reasons:

  1. We had been threatened by lawyers representing the world’s biggest oil company. This was serious and required immediate legal advice.
  2. The letter requested that the material was removed, an apology was given and that we promised to never publish the material again.
  3. Within the context of reasons one and two, we sought immediate legal advice. We were unwilling to back down to this threat until we received full legal advice. We wished to know whether an apology was merited and in what form. We were seriously concerned about the proposal to promise to never republish the material within the article. This was an important story and we wished to pursue it further.
  4. The legal advice recommended that the offending material was taken down and that we made no formal comment.
  5. Taking down the offending material on its own would have appeared like we were backing down and, as we were unable to explain the situation fully, inaccurate perceptions may have been drawn from such a decision.
  6. If we took the article down on its own without offering an apology and promising to never re-issue the content, we would have remained open to further legal challenge.
  7. Therefore taking the website down while taking legal advice made it clear that we were planning a response. Our first statement put up in place of our website made this clear.

Practically, therefore, we have no choice but to take the website down while seeking legal advice.

However, in the long discussion we had concerning our response there were serious moral issues at play.

  1. National Collective members support our collective right to freedom from legal intimidation and freedom of speech. We refused to continue under the premiss of ‘business as usual’.
  2. As Rosa Luxemburgh said, freedom of speech means the freedom to speak and think differently. If National Collective is not free to publish controversial material or ask questions of powerful interests, then it is not free as a whole. Indeed if all our material which challenges vested interests or upsets the status quo is removed, then there is little purpose to our campaign and no freedom to present our case for an independent Scotland.
  3. Legal intimidation is a serious issue. To target a small, if growing, online community is the worst manifestation of this. It was a case of the powerful using the law to dominate the weak. We wished to challenge this. To do so required us to cease our normal activities and focus our collective attention on the case.

Therefore for us to abide by the legal threat, follow the legal advice and pursue our response in opposition to corporate intimidation and the support of freedom of speech, we had to remove the website. To do anything less would have been to concede a partial defeat to Vitol’s lawyers and those politically motivated to censor and discredit us.

In conclusion, our response to the legal threat was serious and considered. We stand in support of our piece of investigative journalism. It took a while for the national media to pick the story up. Now they have and there is no going back. National Collective are proud to continue where we left off: providing positive, creative content for the whole independence debate.

We thank all who have supported this campaign so far, especially those who consistently stood by us in the last week. It means a great deal.

It is the solidarity of spirit that will bring us together in the lead up to September 18 2014.