In the latest round of silly season frothing for the Holyrood bubble, the No campaign and others have gotten their knickers in a twist about this – an article written by Elliot Bulmer for the Herald. Their beef with it, apparently, is that the Yes campaign paid him for his time and didn’t say so. Except they did say so when asked. So here are some of the problems with this confected argument.
1. Mr Bulmer (pictured left, as I imagine him) has been writing about these same issues for years and making a consistent argument for a written Scottish constitution. The opinions he set out in that Herald article are the same as he set out in the Guardian earlier this year, in the Scotsman in 2011, and in a whole damn book he wrote in 2012. He’s not spouting a campaign line because he’s been paid to, nor does this piece appear to diverge at all from his earlier views. He’s being paid for his time because Yes thought it would be good for his views to get another outing in the media. And, apart from the slightly weaker interim constitution stuff in the article, I agree with them and him. No-one is being deceived – those are his views. He’s not Groucho Marx.
2. All sorts of articles in the media are written for money. I’ve done PR for years, and like everyone in PR, I’ve written articles which have been published in the papers, sometimes under my own name, sometimes drafted for a client. And even where I’ve just written a press release (for which I was paid), sometimes articles that get published bear a close resemblance to it without an attached notice explaining that “this cracking story was derived from a press release that James Mackenzie wrote for money and sent to us”. I really don’t believe any journalist who claims not to know that people regularly get paid by third parties to write articles that are then submitted for publication. And that applies to academics, staff at representative bodies, and (although we can call it hospitality or media passes or whatever) journalists too. Actually, that last one does bother me a bit.
3. Relatedly, articles in newspapers never show an audited trail of who got paid how much and by whom to get them to the page. Perhaps they should, but given they don’t normally, why is this one any different? Ah yes, because it’s about the partisan issue which both sides get overwrought about, desperate to pin anything at all on each other in case anything sticks.
4. Writers should be paid for their work like everyone else. Journalists normally argue for this. If the Herald didn’t pay Mr Bulmer to set out his views this time, and Yes were prepared to do so, then that’s how some of his rent got paid that month. I’m glad to hear it. I despise the Huffington Post model which assumes writers don’t need to eat. It’s work like anything else, much as everyone likes seeing their views appearing in the media, and smart people should be paid for their time.
5. You can’t buy a respected academic’s opinions for £100, but you can buy an hour or two of his time. I got asked by a media friend if I would be equally relaxed about the nuclear industry paying an academic to write a pro-nuclear piece for the media. Yes – although I’d still disagree with them, but it’s only OK if it’s that academic’s actual opinion as previously expressed. And I bet you a five tier wedding cake to a stale digestive biscuit exactly that happens all the time, with the only difference being that whoever pays them doesn’t say “sure, of course we paid him/her” when asked about it.
6. Without wishing to sound paranoid, the only reason this story is going anywhere is because the emails that led to the Yes campaign being asked about it appear to have been accessed illegally by a third party. If those allegations are true, that’s a lot more serious, so you can see why the No campaign might want to go into a frenzy of bogus outrage about another issue to muddy the waters on that story. Cynically, it’s very professional diversionary media work, chaps. Well done.
7. This is the weakest attempt to find a scandal where there simply isn’t one in many years, and will have as much traction outside the bubble as a chihuahua in high heels trying to run on a perfectly polished sheet of glass.
8. My pieces on this blog express my views on all sorts of subjects, and I’ve not been paid for any of them, which is unfortunate for me. If anyone, literally anyone, wants to pay me an agreed sum to write a piece that’s 100% consistent with my views as previously set out here so I can see if any of the media will print it, drop me a line and I’ll tell you where to send the cheque.