There has been a great deal of shock at the sudden uncertainty hanging over the future of Bella Caledonia, one of the most prominent sites in the pro-independence alternative media. The concern has extended way beyond the usual suspects in the Yes movement, with even BBC Scotland's business editor Douglas Fraser revealing his high regard for Bella, and suggesting that pro-indy activists have perhaps been funding the 'wrong' websites to date. That's a rather odd charge given that Bella's last two fundraisers have in combination brought in an absolutely enormous £87,000, but nevertheless Bella's board and outgoing editor have clearly concluded that the current financial model is not sustainable, and that the site may have to close if a workable alternative isn't found.
One possible solution has tonight been floated by Craig Murray, the UK's former ambassador to Uzbekistan, and now a passionate advocate for Scottish independence. He has offered to take over the site as editor without drawing a salary, and also to cover any running costs himself. He has also proposed that contributors to the site should in future be unpaid, thus solving the financial problems at a stroke. That would be a massive change in direction for Bella, which in recent years has set out (albeit not always succeeded) to broadly replicate the mainstream media in how it compensates contributors.
Christopher Silver was particularly scathing about this aspect of Craig's plan, which he considers to be another example of a prevailing attitude which is "yoking a generation of talent". I have some sympathy with that view, but ultimately you have to take a step back, and accept that if you will the ends (the survival of Bella), you also have to will the means - and those means will inevitably be shaped by the sustainability of any financial model. That doesn't necessarily mean going from one extreme to the other in quite the way Craig suggests, but if you want to keep paying contributors, it might mean paying them less, or only paying certain 'big name' contributors, or cutting down on output altogether. If Bella is not just 'the media' but is also an integral part of the independence movement, it certainly ought to be possible in principle to find people who would be motivated enough to write for free, or for only a little. But that would probably involve giving those people the maximum space and freedom to pursue their own passions at their own pace (and I say that as someone who has written a roughly equal number of paid and unpaid articles for other websites over the years). That in itself might constitute something of a culture change for the site.
Anyway, out of curiosity, I decided to run a poll on Twitter to test the enthusiasm for Craig taking over as editor. The poll still has almost a day to run, but 409 people have already voted, and the preliminary results can only be described as emphatic -
Should the Bella Caledonia board accept Craig Murray's offer to take over as editor and keep the site going for free?
OK, strictly speaking this is a self-selecting 'voodoo' poll, but for a niche concern like this it would in any case be meaningless to attempt to poll a representative sample of the general public. At least Twitter polls ensure that each account can only vote once, and it's also highly likely that most of the people reached by the poll are active 'consumers' of the pro-independence alternative media.
So if this popular backing for Craig is heeded by the Bella board, what would it mean for the site? Craig has said that nothing would change as far as the reader's experience is concerned, but a new editor is surely bound to herald at least a subtle change of direction. I would guess there would be a somewhat 'brasher' emphasis on support for independence in future. Given that Craig is a former, but not current, member of the SNP, it's likely that the site would continue to be a 'critical friend' of the Scottish Government, but with the criticisms perhaps coming from a somewhat different angle than at present. (It's worth noting that Craig is also a former member of the Liberal Democrats, rather than a radical left party.) Ironically enough, one point on which there would probably be no change at all is the site's trenchant support for so-called 'tactical voting on the list', which is the only topic I can ever remember having a direct disagreement with Craig about.