Two weeks ago I wrote an article giving my thoughts on any attempt to re-create Yes Scotland. I argued that any such body would require to have input across the pro-independence political divide.
Below is a key paragraph:
“Any attempt to resurrect the Yes movement must include all of the major players from indyref1. That includes the Scottish Greens, the socialists, the a-political and the SNP.
There must also be an open door for those within the Unionist party ranks who wish to participate. Alan Grogan caused considerable panic within the No campaign during indyref1 when he launched Labour for Independence.
Ground rules should be agreed. There must be no party-politicking of any description. Everyone would have to agree to abide by a code of conduct. A Yes movement that descended into the kind of SNP sniping we witnessed during the Scottish election would collapse before the year was out.”
The a-political for me includes groups such as Women for Independence, Business for Scotland and Common Weal. Also fitting loosely into this category are the disparate Yes groups who were crucial in creating the public image of Yes Scotland.
But there is a group missing. I deliberately didn’t include online sites. Why not you might ask? The answer is that not all of them are specifically set up as pro-Yes or pro-independence campaign sites.
Regardless of your views on Newsnet, Bella Caledonia or Common Space, none can be described as exclusively pro-independence campaign vehicles. Each one, to a greater or lesser extent, will allot a significant proportion of its content to subjects that have little or nothing to do with Scottish independence. This isn’t a criticism, it’s just stating a fact.
The closest to an outright pro-independence campaign site is probably Wings Over Scotland. The site run by Stuart Campbell is almost exclusively designed to expose Unionist falsehoods, be they from the pro-Union media or the political parties supported by that media. It is by far the most popular pro-independence site amongst grass roots activists.
So it was with surprise that I read the following paragraph from an article written by former Sunday Herald editor Richard Walker and published in The National.
“To pull together all those strands of the Yes campaign which still exist – Bella Caledonia, Common Weal/Space, Newsnet, Women for Independence, Business for Scotland, The Greens and, yes, even Rise and more – so that when the indyref2 campaign begins in earnest the movement doesn’t have to be rebuilt from scratch.”
Wings Over Scotland is missing from this list of ‘strands of the Yes campaign’. The site that commands the greatest pro-indy following is not deemed worthy of mention. The omission is all the more puzzling given that groups that didn’t even exist during the first independence referendum are included.
Why is this? How is it that the most popular site fails to merit a single mention? Is it, as I believe, evidence of the intellectual snobbery that has always existed within elements of the alternative media?
The omission of Wings from the list is not a new phenomenon. It is not even restricted to Wings Over Scotland. It’s routine when alternative media outlets are discussed by those with links to, or a profile within, the traditional media to find either Wings or Newsnet missing.
Of the three main sites during the referendum, only Bella Caledonia was consistently mentioned. Indeed, despite lagging both Wings and Newsnet in terms of unique visitors throughout the referendum, it was almost always portrayed as the leading pro-independence site. It still is, as can be seen from Richard Walker’s article.
There’s no doubt that since the referendum Bella Caledonia has taken the second place mantle from Newsnet. Mike Small launched an appeal last summer which garnered over fifty thousand pounds – ten of it from me [quid, not thousand!]. The success of that appeal, due in part to goodwill across the yes divide, allowed Mike to pay himself a salary of thirty grand and with it focus full time on his site. The rest of the cash has contributed to a wide and varied selection of articles and videos.
But despite its considerable advantage in terms of celebrity endorsements and main stream media connections, Bella Caledonia has been unable to dent the dominance of Wings Over Scotland. A second Bella appeal is currently underway and has attracted an impressive £13,000 from 250 people in a little over nine days. With nineteen days left to run though, the appeal may fall short of its fifty thousand pound target.
Bella Caledonia’s latest appeal found its way onto the pages of The National this week courtesy of an article from Pat Kane. The article praised all of the alternative media outlets but the online version contained donate links to just two – Bella Caledonia and Common Space.
To be fair to Pat, he also published the article on his own website and included donate links for multiple pro-indy sites. But the timing of the piece was obviously designed to coincide with, and help, the live Bella appeal.
Wings Over Scotland appeals receive no such promotion from the ‘great and the good’. And to be fair, Stuart Campbell’s site doesn’t need any. A Wings Over Scotland appeal in April this year generated almost £85,000 from 2642 people.
Wings Over Scotland is the site most favoured by the ordinary punter. They show their support by donating their cash to the site and promoting it. Why they do this is clear. They want to see the pro-Union media challenged and exposed.
Bella Caledonia is the site most favoured by the self-styled intellectual elite. They show their support by promoting the site’s intellectual and cultural strengths as they see it, as this clip from a Bella promo-video from the indyref shows.
Some also portray Bella Caledonia as intellectually superior to at least one of its rivals. Here’s Stuart Cosgrove in another Bella promo video.
Bella sits in the “ideas engine room of the Scottish alternative media” says Pat Kane, meanwhile Stuart Cosgrove says it’s “much more cerebral” than Wings Over Scotland. Before the usual suspects start claiming I’ve attacked either Pat Kane or Stuart Cosgrove, I’d point out that I am merely using these clips to illustrate how Bella is perceived by those who promote and contribute to it.
And this brings me back to Richard Walker’s article. How exactly are disparate pro-Yes sites to be ‘pulled together’?, especially given that one of them has recently fired off insults in the general direction of its online indy ‘colleagues’. Below is an example of how Bella views its alternative media contemporaries.
Mike Small, May 16th:
“I suppose where we differ is that some other sites focus exclusively on one party as the road map to independence and we think the issues are more complex than that.
I’d ask you to read the list of writers in the blog above and ask yourself where else has such diversity?
From our very beginnings a decade ago till the end we have independence at our very core. We think its fair enough to hold a forum for this debate. Ultimately if people just want to support the blogs and writers who support the SNP exclusively then I guess we will close down. We should know within a few weeks.”
Mike Small, May 17th:
“If you want an ‘alternative media’ that comprises largely of exclusively pro-SNP voices, who often don’t consider any critical thinking or dissent then that’s OK.”
To suggest only Bella Caledonia is capable of ‘critical thinking’ is insulting as is the suggestion that other sites aren’t diverse and are incapable of understanding that the independence road might be complex.
Kevin Williamson, May 8th:
“Difference of approaches have opened up between the likes of Common Space/Bella (who want to explore ideas and take bolder more radical approaches) and the fundamentalist axis of Wings/Newsnet who act mainly as SNP cheerleaders while critiquing the media/Unionists in showboating circular arguments.
The blogs close to the SNP are so devoid of new political thinking they’ll end up circling the wagons around an ever-decreasing readership. Such is the nature of movements when they ebb. Common Space and Bella have a future because they go beyond indyref politics.
Its what makes these websites necessary. Scotland needs radical ideas, fresh thinking and the questioning of power much more than it needs pro-Indy government cheerleaders.”
Newsnet might be many things, but part of a ‘fundamentalist axis’ of ‘SNP cheerleaders’ as claimed by Kevin Williamson, it isn’t. Prior to and during the Holyrood election campaign Newsnet gave space to Green candidate Zara Kitson, Common Space editor Angela Haggerty and Bella Caledonia board member Peter Arnott. As far as I am aware all three were free to say or write what they wanted to, and that included criticising the SNP. Ask James Kelly if the same editorial freedom was afforded him by Bella Caledonia’s editor.
And as far as “critiquing the media/Unionists in showboating circular arguments”, I would hope those of us who ‘showboat’ in this fashion continue to do so. Exposing pro-Union journalistic corruption is as important as publishing radical ideas and opinion pieces, perhaps more so.
The attacks on Newsnet and Wings mirror similar thinly veiled criticisms of Derek Bateman and Paul ‘Wee Ginger Dug’ Kavanagh during the recent Holyrood election campaign by Mike Small. Bateman responded in his own inimitable fashion.
The opportunity to create a single cooperative pro-independence online media, as I argued back in 2015, has now gone. Cooperation simply won’t happen. There is though cooperation between Bella Caledonia and Common Space. Again, for those who may portray that sentence as a criticism, it is merely a statement of fact.
What we have now is two distinct groups. The first sees itself as uniquely free-thinking and/or culturally and journalistically superior. This first group has effectively set itself above the other group which it views as unsophisticated and simplistic.
The other group, rather surprisingly, doesn’t seem to care or notice. Newsnet has shown a remarkable and commendable indifference to the insults thrown in its general direction. Wings Over Scotland has responded to an online volley from Kevin Williamson with a single article.
There’s no way these alternative media outlets are going to ‘pull together’, thus there’s no way they can become part of any Yes campaign. So what role will these online sites play in the game of indyref2? Well that’s an interesting question and one that will depend on what path they all take.
During the last referendum, Newsnet Scotland worked very closely with Yes groups across the country. Its ability to publish daily news stories that challenged the agenda of the main stream media was seen as a powerful weapon by many. Newsnet also led the way in exposing the corruption at the heart of the BBC.
A Yes activist based in Dundee offered to print high-quality glossy leaflets at cost. Newsnet printed around a million. Individual Yes groups distributed these leaflets the length and breadth of the country on behalf of Newsnet. It led to the site’s unique visitor numbers growing to almost 450,000 by the time September 2014 arrived.
Wings Over Scotland had a similar relationship with Yes groups. Stuart Campbell’s Wee Blue Book was distributed by local Yes activists. I recall my mother’s next door neighbour imploring me to hand over the copy I had obtained from the Yes Inverclyde store. I never saw it again! Wings Over Scotland’s unique visitor numbers were at least double that of Newsnet by the time September 2014 arrived.
The next Yes campaign will almost certainly see similar direct cooperation between Yes groups and online sites if those Yes groups deem it to be helpful to the Yes quest. The intellectual pedigree of the site will make no difference. Indeed the more easily understood the content and more readily digested by the public, then the more likely the desire to circulate it.
Bella and ‘the intellectuals’ [sounds like a band] will have their own role. People like Pat Kane and Stuart Cosgrove are a considerable asset to Yes due in no small part to their media profile. But I think it would help if they stopped trying to portray one online site as the independence movement’s cultural and intellectual Mecca.
Despite my own criticisms of Bella Caledonia and its support for, and promotion of, RISE [something Mike Small denies], it remains an important cog in the Yes movement engine. But it’s just a cog, like Wings and Newsnet. Bella isn’t the cultural sun around which everything else orbits, it doesn’t have a monopoly on intellectual/critical thought and it isn’t the ideas engine room of the Scottish alternative media.
Yes has many colours online. Let’s drop the intellectual and cultural superiority nonsense.
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