Tuesday 29 March 2016

McPravda - Get in the Sea

Someone at The National has obviously developed a bit of an obsession with the Scottish Liberal Democrats. It's really kind of cute. For a paper that makes The Beano look like the pinnacle of hard-hitting journalistic integrity, whose main party-pieces are a Twitter account with a beret, a talking dog and a guy that writes in a register that has more in common with Klingon than Scots, it really is quite an achievement for them to have hit a new low.

The latest front-cover is attempting to smear the Lib Dems over a series of grants made by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust to Lib Dem politicians. Here's the front-page:


Now let's clear-up a few things. The Rowntree Reform Trust is not a "Quaker trust". It is a political trust that is very clear about its purposes and completely transparent about the grants it makes to individuals and organisations. On their website home-page, they state:
"We fund political campaigns in the UK to promote democratic reform, civil liberties and social justice."

They are transparent

They also publish information about every single grant that they make, and there is an open applications process. There are thirty-eight pages on their website clearly listing grants awarded, the purposes for which they were awarded, and a categorisation to reflect the different range of trust purposes. Grants range from democratic engagements groups like OpenDemocracy and Operation Black Vote, to issue campaigns like CND and the Rainbow Project in Northern Ireland. They also have a dedicated category of donation called "Raw Politics", which is about as transparent as you could really hope for when it comes to political donations.

This isn't a coup

The idea that the Rowntree Reform Trust has been taken over by the Lib Dems for political purposes is faintly absurd. The organisation has been making substantial contributions to Lib Dem parliamentarians, local parties, devolved parties and the UK federal party for well over a decade. Before the 2005 General Election, for example, they made £500,000 of contributions to the Lib Dems to help with fighting that election.

The idea that it is some sort of secret that the Rowntree Reform Trust helps the Lib Dems is equally absurd. Even a cursory glance at its donation history would show that it has close ties both to the Liberal Democrats and to the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland and is a substantial contributor. No doubt Electoral Commission donor registration would have flagged this up to any half-observant journalist. It would appear, especially in their efforts to smear Tim Farron and Willie Rennie specifically, that The National didn't even bother to look beyond the first few pages of donations. In both cases, donations were given clear reasons for being made, specifically on policy development in housing and social welfare. It has also donated to politicians like Ed Davey, Susan Kramer, Julian Huppert and Kirsty Williams.

They don't even just donate to the Lib Dems

It's not even as though the Rowntree Trust donates exclusively to the Lib Dems and Alliance Party. It is a fairly regular contributor to the Labour-aligned Compass and Fabian Society and has also donated to Bright Blue (a Conservative moderate reform group), the Jersey Democratic Alliance, and even the Jimmy Reid Foundation, which had been closely connected to pro-independence circles at the time. In the past, it has also donated to a Federation of Green Parties in London. It makes lots of donations to democratic and liberty-promoting pressure groups like Liberty, No2ID and others, for sure, but it has never hidden its intentions to use its resources and profits (on which it pays full UK tax) for political purposes.

This is better party financing than the alternative

The important thing to emphasise here is that the Rowntree Reform Trust is not a charity. It is a profit-making trust. There is a separate body from which donations that can be deemed charitable are processed. None of the party-political donations have been processed through the charitable trust.

Anyone naive enough to think that an organisation connected to the Rowntrees isn't going to, in some way, promote Liberal and liberal causes with its political campaign resources must have been living under a rock for most of British democratic history. It's even less controversial than Labour-affiliated unions allowing their members to make voluntary contributions to their political funds.

The only reason this story has been brought up is because of a recent grant made by the society to Alistair Carmichael to help him meet his costs in the successful defence against the election petition to have him removed from Parliament over Frenchgate. The Trust has been very clear about the reasons behind this donation, and released a statement a clear 4 days ago giving their reasons for it.
"Thanks to the perversities of the UK’s electoral system the 50% of Scottish voters who supported unionist parties at the General Election are represented by only three MPs. Had nationalists succeeded in their case against Alistair Carmichael, they would have worsened further the current misrepresentation of Scottish voters’ views in Parliament. Worse still, the effect on case law would have been to subject many more legitimately elected Members of Parliament to the risk of personal bankruptcy in defending themselves in court against vexatious and highly political claims."
Now you can disagree about the merits of this particular grant, but it is one the Trust is entirely entitled to make. It is no different from any other private organisation that decides it wants to provide financial support to political campaigns or representatives. It is surely, if anything, preferable that politicians be receiving money from organisations with transparent political motives than organisations with more covert, corporate, quid-pro-quo motives. It's also worth pointing out that £35k of the £50k was actually advanced to Carmichael in January, before he would have known either whether his costs were recoverable or what their total amount would be.

One might draw parallels with the large donations made by people like Brian Souter, owner of Stagecoach, to the SNP and Yes Scotland campaigns, for example, or even the historical influence of Big Tobacco, or Goldman Sachs in US Presidential campaigns. This Trust is, at the end of the day, just an organisation set-up to manage some of the wealth of a deceased prominent liberal campaigner, by investing that money and making distributions to causes connected with liberal values.

A wasted opportunity

If it were any newspaper other than The National, I'd suggest that their obsession with the Lib Dems indicated that they were in possession of some information from SNP insiders that the Lib Dems were actually posing a threat in constituencies like Edinburgh Western and that this was an effort to knock that campaign off-course. Because it's The National though, I doubt the journalistic or political nous for that even to be the case. It's just a sad little obsession to make-up for the fact that it's not a real newspaper and it hasn't anything actually insightful to write. It's a chronic shame that McPravda has given up any serious pretence of being an objective or balanced or fair contributor to Scottish public debate.

As it stands, they're a bunch of hacks that give even Scottish journalism a bad name. All that's left, to be honest, is to tell them to get in the fucking sea.

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